Who Really Cares about Converts?

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On July 12, 2010, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee approved a controversial draft bill on conversion reform. Presented as an effort to make conversion more accessible to hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who are not Jewish according to state and religious law, the proposed legislation sparked an outcry both in Israel and the Diaspora. In this article, IDI Researcher Netanel Fisher exposes the dangerous linkage between conversion and the status of Judaism's non-Orthodox movements and assesses the likelihood of the bill achieving its goals.

The time is ripe for the political system to wake up to the distress of Israelis who wish to convert to Judaism. Since the departure of Ariel Sharon, politicians have rarely taken on one of the country's most important social and religious tasks—promoting state-sponsored conversion.

Recently, however, MK David Rotem of the Yisrael Beiteinu party took up the mantle of this issue and is to be congratulated for this. As the political party supported by the vast majority of Israeli immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Yisrael Beiteinu is largely promoting this bill due to its relevance to a large percentage of its constituents. However, it seems that in its zeal to prove the diligence of its representatives, Yisrael Beiteinu has lost sight of its primary mission to resolve the plight of immigrants who have become citizens of Israel based on the Law of Return but are not Jewish according to Jewish or Israeli law. The bill it raised for discussion in the Knesset in July 2010 should never have been drafted.

Essentially, the proposed legislation would decentralize authority for the conversion process. This is a fine idea. But rather than spark a revolution and expand the circle of converts in an effective manner, Yisrael Beiteinu drafted a toothless proposal that grants sole authority for conversions, under limited conditions, to the chief rabbis of cities and neighborhoods. (In earlier drafts, the proposal gave regional and community rabbis authority to convert people to Judaism as well.) Needless to say, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis who hold the majority of these positions are not likely to conduct their affairs in the inclusive and flexible spirit that Rotem perhaps intended. In addition, while the Rotem bill relates to the retroactive annulment of conversions, it will not be effective in solving this problem, since one section of the law allows conversions to be appealed "for any reason." As a result, those who question the validity of conversions today will continue to do so if the new law is passed.

Even if Rotem's proposal is not merely a sleight of hand, and if an expanded group of rabbis authorized to conduct conversions is indeed a step in the right direction, the bill is still highly problematic, as it binds the conversion issue in Israel to the status of Judaism's non-Orthodox movements. This connection creates an unnecessary and dangerous confrontation between two issues that are not related to each other.

By way of explanation: The Israeli High Court of Justice is currently considering a petition demanding the recognition of  conversions performed by members of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism , which is the Reform movement in Israel (HCJ 11013/05, Natalia Dahan). To gain ultra-Orthodox support for its bill, Yisrael Beiteinu agreed to include clauses reinforcing the Orthodox monopoly on conversions in Israel, which would force the Supreme Court petition by the Reform Movement to be dropped. This, in part, explains why the Chief Rabbi of Israel called on the members of Shas [an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party] to leave the coalition if the bill is not passed. Clearly, he was less interested in promoting conversion reform than in preventing recognition of Reform conversion. This is also the reason why Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu refused to support the bill. He knows full well that behind ultra-Orthodox support for this bill is a desire to do battle against non-Orthodox strains of Judaism in Israel and the Diaspora. In response, American Jews claim—justifiably so— that it will be difficult for them to support Israel politically and economically in these difficult times, if the state subjects them to humiliation.

I do not support judicial activism and I believe the Knesset is the appropriate body for establishing boundaries for the Israeli collective. For this reason, it is my opinion that a decision on the conversion issue would be best left to legislation by public representatives, rather than to judicial rulings by the Supreme Court. But why bind together two unrelated issues, as the Rotem bill does? Why is it that under the guise of attempting to help converts, a conflict with our friends in the Jewish Diaspora is being introduced through the back door?

If it is truly the desire of the Chief Rabbinate to help people convert, I would like to offer the following suggestions: Under the Conversion Order, the Chief Rabbinate currently has the authority to decentralize jurisdiction over conversions. Even without the Rotem bill, it could grant the authority to convert to a long line of community rabbis and additional rabbis—the same rabbis it authorized to conduct marriage ceremonies and to grant kosher certification. It could also appoint additional—and perhaps more lenient—rabbis to serve as marriage registrars. The Chief Rabbinate also has the power to put an end to the plague of annulled conversions. As the country's highest spiritual and Halakhic authority, it can promote more lenient Halakhic decision-making than the approach prevalent today, and can encourage communities to provide support for people undergoing the conversion process. In short, much more can be done on behalf of converts in Israel, and many people and organizations would follow suit if the Chief Rabbinate were to lead this effort.

However, if Shas and the Chief Rabbinate—and, to a large extent, Yisrael Beiteinu—are less interested in promoting expanded and simplified conversion in Israel, and are more interested in reinforcing the Orthodox monopoly, I implore them not to pursue this goal at the expense of the country's would-be converts. The current state of conversion policy in Israel demands that our leaders put aside their political agendas for a moment and address the very real, growing, and dire crisis at hand. 

Netanel Fisher is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute working with IDI Vice President Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern on the promotion of conversion in Israel. He is a Ph.D. candidate at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is writing his dissertation on conversion policy.