Conversion: Another unnecessary war of the Jews

In recent days, Israel’s Minister of Interior, Aryeh Deri, has begun advancing a draft bill aimed at reinforcing the Rabbinate’s monopoly on conversion, which has been eroded by High Court rulings. This bill, which comes on top of the “Jewishness tests” that Population Administration officials have been administering to persons whose Jewish status was already recognized long since, can only do harm. It pushes away those who wish to convert in Israel, as well as Jews abroad who are contemplating aliyah, and deals an additional blow to the already troubled relations between the Government of Israel and world Jewry. The Minister of the Interior would be well advised to shelve this bill, and instead- use his political capital to embrace Jews making aliyah with open arms, along with those who are already living here and want to join the Jewish people.

A brief recap of the previous episodes: The issue of what form of conversion is valid in Israel has been troubling the public arena since the 1970s, when the Law of Return was amended to stipulate that for its purposes, a convert also qualifies as a Jew. The main controversy has been between the Orthodox establishment, which demands a monopoly on conversion in Israel and abroad and adamantly refuses to recognize any other option, and the Reform and Conservative movements, which lack political power in Israel but constitute the overwhelming majority of US Jews and want Israel to recognize their converts as Jewish. After stubborn political battles, the High Court of Justice broadened the definition of conversions recognized in Israel, by ruling that non-Orthodox conversions performed abroad must be accepted for the purpose of the Law of Return. The straw that broke the back of the ultra-Orthodox camel was the High Court’s ruling, three years ago, which further chipped away at the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly by recognizing private Orthodox conversions. In reaction to the political crisis that erupted, the Prime Minister appointed a one-man committee to study the issue — former Justice Minister Moshe Nissim. He recommended that the conversion system be fundamentally reformed towards a more moderate and tolerant approach.

But as generally happens in Israel, Nissim’s recommendations were published with great fanfare and, after provoking the fierce opposition of the ultra-Orthodox, quietly faded away. The new situation created by the High Court remained in effect, and Deri waited until the time was ripe to “restore the ancient glory of yesteryear.” The bill he is pushing, if enacted into law, would reinforce the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on conversion and effectively overrule the High Court’s decision. According to his proposal, conversions would be permitted in Israel, exclusively through by the State conversion system operated by the Chief Rabbinate.

The bill is a very bad idea for a number of reasons. First, one of the main bones of contention between Israel and world Jewry relates to the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions. The High Court rulings dialed back this tension when they recognized non-Orthodox conversions abroad (and to some extent in Israel). If Deri’s bill passes, we will be treated to yet another round of conflict between Israel and the liberal Jewish community in the US, to which most American Jews belong. Second, such a law would also bar conversions under unofficial Orthodox auspices — those performed by ultra-Orthodox rabbinical courts — but also those performed by the more lenient and tolerant Orthodox conversion courts that, since their establishment four years ago, have became a major player on the conversion scene in Israel. Finally, cementing the monopoly on conversion in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate, which is currently stringent, inflexible, and controlled by the ultra-Orthodox, would constrain the ability of many Israelis to join the Jewish people. In this situation, many olim from the FSU currently living a Jewish life in Israel but who are not halakhically Jewish and would be happy to convert, would be deterred from doing so by the stringent conditions attached to conversion and so — decide to remain — in this regard — on the margins of Jewish society in Israel.

The form of conversion is recognized by the State of Israel is a weighty and explosive issue. The situation that has evolved is far from perfect, but it does allow for a certain degree of pluralism on the one hand, while preserving the Chief Rabbinate’s authority with regard to conversion, on the other. Passage of Deri’s bill is akin to walking through a minefield, completely aware of the fact that the explosion is only a matter of time. It would do untold damage to the State of Israel, to the large community of non-Jewish Israelis living, and to the country’s relations with a significant number of Jews abroad. Minister Deri and the bill’s other supporters bill would be well advised to pull back from his harmful initiative, before all of us end up marching on this mine.

About the Author
Dr. Shuki Friedman is director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute and a lecturer in law at the Peres Academic Center.
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