A bill submitted to the Knesset would require the state to recognize only conversions completed under the auspices of the ultra-Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate.
The measure, which was submitted by the Interior Ministry led by Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, is intended to circumvent last year’s Supreme Court ruling which forced the state to recognize Jewish conversions performed in private Orthodox conversion courts not run by the Chief Rabbinate.
That ruling meant that people who had converted in Orthodox non-Rabbinate courts in Israel could be registered as Jews by the Interior Ministry and were entitled to citizenship under the Law of Return.
But the proposed bill seeks to enshrine in law that only those who convert through the rabbinate are entitled to be registered officially as Jews.
In the past few years several unrecognized courts headed by prominent Orthodox rabbis, including Efrat’s Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Rabbi Nahum Rabinowitz of Maale Adumim and Shoham’s Rabbi David Stav, who was once a candidate to become chief rabbi of Israel, have performed dozens of conversions, primarily of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were unable to prove their Jewish identity to the rabbinate, and who were rejected as candidates for conversion by the state conversion courts.
The Supreme Court ruling followed a petition by Rabbi Shaul (Seth) Farber, founder of the Itim organization which advocates for those stymied by the rabbinate’s bureaucracy.
Farber reacted harshly to the proposed legislation.
“This bill, which is being promoted by the ultra-Orthodox members of the government, is in fact against Jewish law,” he said. “For hundreds of years, various courts operated within the Jewish communities, with different approaches to Jewish law – some of them more stringent and some less so.”
Farber said that the proposed legislation is discriminatory.
“This bill is intended to deepen the existing situation of first-class and second-class Jews – those recognized by state institutions and those that are not recognized,” he said. “This is absurd from a religious point of view and from a human standpoint.”
The impact of the Supreme Court ruling has been small. Israel already recognizes Orthodox, and non-Orthodox, conversions performed outside its borders. Furthermore, those who convert through the private courts are still not be able to marry or divorce in Israel because those rituals are run by the Chief Rabbinate, which had vowed not to recognize the private conversions.
The Law of Return allows both Jews and their immediate relatives to immigrate to Israel, however the Chief Rabbinate recognizes as Jewish only those who converted through authorized Orthodox conversion courts, or those who can prove their Jewishness through matrilineal descent, as per Jewish religious law.