Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Friday afternoon that the controversial conversion bill at the heart of the flare-up in Israel-Diaspora tensions this week would be frozen for six months while a state-appointed committee attempts to reach an “agreed-upon arrangement within our people.” On a second issue of dispute, the question of a permanent space for pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall, however, there was no significant progress.
According to an agreement reached by coalition leaders in a testy meeting earlier Friday, the government, liberal Jewish streams and private Orthodox conversion initiatives will together ask the High Court of Justice to delay any rulings on conversion for the next six months while the committee does it work.
“Harmony within the Jewish people is important to me,” Netanyahu said as he prepared to board a plane at Ben Gurion Airport for the French city of Strasbourg to attend the funeral of former German chancellor Helmut Kohl.
“It’s important to me as the prime minister of Israel, and it’s important to me personally and a son of the Jewish people,” he said.
Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, expressed optimism over the plan for a new committee, together “with all the parties that have stakes in this,” to reconsider the conversion issue. “We still have a lot of work to do, and there are still differences,” he said, “but we’re hopeful that… we’ll be able to come to solutions so we don’t have to face this again.” He said he appreciated that Netanyahu had “listened to our thoughts,” on the issue, and said he assumed the Jewish Agency would represent Diaspora Jewry in the discussions.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Israel Reform Movement, stressed that his movement would “never accept a monopoly” over conversion, and would again resort to the High Court if necessary.
According to Netanyahu, “the appellants [to the High Court] and the government of Israel agree to freeze all initiatives, the appeals on conversion to the High Court, the legislation in the government and the Knesset, and this will have course allow me to establish a committee that will work for six months to find solutions for an agreed-upon arrangement on conversion.”
The sides would approach the High Court on Sunday, he said.
“I very much hope the High Court will acquiesce to this joint request, since it will cool tempers and open up the possibility and hope for an agreed-upon arrangement within our people.”
According to a statement from Netanyahu’s office, if the High Court rejects the delay and decides to rule on one of the outstanding petitions dealing with conversion, then the government would operate according to the coalition agreements.
This statement appears to be a concession to the Haredi parties in his coalition, who demanded that if the freeze is rejected by any party, the conversion bill they have advanced would be brought back to the Knesset to begin its legislation.
But Netanyahu’s statement limits its commitment to what is required under the “coalition agreement,” which requires unanimous agreement among coalition members for any change in the religion-and-state status quo. The Yisrael Beytenu party of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has already announced it opposes the conversion bill in its current form and filed an appeals against the bill last Sunday at a meeting of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.
If passed, the conversion bill would deny citizenship rights under the Law of Return to non-Israelis who convert to Judaism under private auspices in Israel. It would not affect the eligibility for citizenship of those who convert outside Israel.
Liberal American Jewish groups have noted that the bill would mark the first time the Haredi-controlled state rabbinate was given control not only over who it recognizes as Jewish, but over who the state as a whole views as eligible for the right of return.
Seth Farber, head of the Giyur Kahalacha movement — which allows for conversions according to Orthodox Jewish law (halacha), but outside the bureaucracy of the chief rabbinate — said that assuming the High Court agrees to the delay, “this is an enormous victory for reason over might.”
Farber, whose movement performed more than 400 conversions in 2016, said Shas leader Aryeh Deri “has spent the last week and a half unnecessarily wielding a stick and trying to humiliate the American jewish community, the Reform and Conservative communities, and do a disservice to the future of conversion in this country. The compromise is an effective and positive step.”
“Once the flames die down a little,” Farber said, “there are meaningful legal ways to address the concerns of the bill without resorting to bullying tactics and [inflexible] party policy. What’s at stake is the future of the Jewish people, and that’s simply too important to leave in the hands of the myopic few.”
Minister for Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett welcomed the move to delay the bill, saying in a statement Friday that it “creates dialogue between Israel and Diaspora” and “will ensure Israel remains the homeland of the entire Jewish People.”
“Conversation is the key to Jewish unity, and close relations with US Jews are a strategic asset of Israel,” said Bennett, who heads the right-wing party Jewish Home and is also education minister.
Stuck at the Wall
A source close to the government claimed on Friday that progress was also being made on the cabinet’s Sunday decision to freeze the so-called Western Wall compromise deal, an issue that has also drawn angry opposition from American Jewish leaders in recent days.
The source reiterated to The Times of Israel that construction of the permanent facility for pluralistic prayer would go ahead, and said that the issue of how people would gain access to the various Western Wall prayer areas — via a single or multiple entry points — would now be reexamined.
The key issue of oversight of the pluralistic prayer pavilion would not be reconsidered, however, this source said. Under the now frozen deal, non-Orthodox streams of Judaism were to have had joint oversight of the pluralistic pavilion — a concession they deemed crucial and that ultra-Orthodox leaders fervently opposed.
Kariv, head of the Israeli Reform movement, told The Times of Israel on Friday afternoon that his movement was adamant in insisting on shared oversight of the facility, and would not compromise on the issue. Any assertion to the contrary was “nonsense,” he said. “We already made all the compromises we’re willing to make,” he said.
In a separate statement, Kariv accused the ultra-Orthodox parties of leading “a campaign of destruction in Israel-Diaspora relations with the tacit consent of Netanyahu.
The JFNA’s Silverman said an effort was being made to bring together Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, Netanyahu’s point man on the Western Wall issue, and Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky, in order to have them “begin dialogue working together on how to think about bringing the parties to the table and what’s going to be different this time.”
Earlier Friday, the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties had stormed out of the meeting of coalition leaders that sought to approve the delay of the conversion bill.
The delay was accepted by most of the party leaders, according to sources familiar with what transpired in the closed-door gathering who spoke to the Israeli media. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit reportedly also backed the idea.
But then Netanyahu asked an aide to draft a letter announcing the decision that he would send to American Jewish leaders.
The request reportedly led Interior Minister Deri to demand that in exchange for Shas acquiescing to the delay, the other coalition parties would agree to advance the bill if the High Court of Justice does not itself delay hearing the appeals of the Reform movement and others on recognition for its conversions.
Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister, insisted that any new push for the bill would require a new cabinet debate, leading Deri to complain angrily that he was the only one compromising. Deri then stalked out of the meeting, followed by MK Moshe Gafni of UTJ.
UTJ sources told Hebrew-language media outlets that their coalition partners had “backtracked on explicit agreements and violated the coalition agreement.”
Defenders of the legislation, chiefly the ultra-Orthodox parties in the governing coalition, say it consolidates the conversion system in Israel and safeguards its integrity.
The conversion initiative, along with a move to nix the construction of the pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall, angered liberal Israelis and triggered an unprecedented clash this week with representatives of US Jewry.
After Friday’s meeting, Moshe Kahlon wrote on Twitter that he “expects all sides to return [to the table] and sit until we reach an agreed-upon framework.”
He added: “National resilience and the real security of the Jewish people lies in its unity. The Jewish people paid a steep price in the past for its divisions, and we won’t return to those periods.”
The bill is also being challenged from within the coalition by Yisrael Beytenu, whose appeal is slated to be debated in the cabinet at its next meeting, currently scheduled for Thursday next week.
The measure, which was drafted last month by the Interior Ministry, led by Deri, is an attempt to circumvent a March 2016 Supreme Court ruling that allowed those undergoing private Orthodox conversions in Israel to become citizens under the Law of Return. The court did not take a stand on the religious question of rabbinic recognition of the converts as Jews, but did require Israeli civil agencies to treat them as Jewish for the purposes of naturalization.
Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers have vowed to fight for the bill, with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, leader of UTJ, threatening his party will bolt the coalition if it isn’t signed into law.
JTA contributed to this report.