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What Smotrich got right: The Conversion Bill and Diaspora Jewry

New legislation would redefine who gets to decide 'who is a Jew' – and while the law would apply only to Israelis, it would have implications for world Jewry
Mikvah immersion is required for Orthodox and Conservative conversions and strongly recommended for Reform conversions. (Mayyim Hayyim/Tom Kates via JTA)
ILLUSTRATIVE: Mikvah immersion for the purpose of conversion to Judaism (Mayyim Hayyim/Tom Kates via JTA)

Last week, a firestorm erupted when MK Bezalel Smotrich set foot on British soil. Smotrich, who heads the Religious Zionist party affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox side of the national-religious sector in Israel, is known for his extremist views on various issues such as the attitude toward the Arab minority in Israel and the LGBT community, and Judaism and State issues. British Jewish organizations issued strong messages disavowing MK Smotrich for his well-known positions.

Why did MK Smotrich decide to visit Britain and France? Deviating from his habit of not flying abroad much, he released a statement before the trip claiming that he had in mind “pressing changes in issues concerning the entire Jewish people, and in particular the issue of conversion.” He was referring, of course, to the conversion bill proposed by Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana, a bill based on principles agreed on in the coalition agreements. Smotrich’s statement further notes that “conversion is not only an internal Israeli matter but one that concerns the entire Jewish world and therefore changes in it must be made through dialogue and joint thinking with Diaspora Jewry.”

Smotrich is right. When dealing with the question of who can convert, we open the sensitive question, Who is a Jew? Or rather, who can determine who is a Jew? Who sets the boundaries of this definition, at least in Israel? But even if it is ultimately a bill that mainly concerns the citizens of Israel, it is not possible to relegate such an issue to internal Israeli debate, since it has implications for the entire Jewish people.

But before we get to the implications, we should first explain a little about what the bill proposes. Israel currently has no conversion law. Despite this, government decisions and various High Court rulings stipulate that conversion to Judaism in Israel is subject, as are many religious issues, to one centralizing body, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. The administrative body that handles the conversion process operates under the Prime Minister’s Office and not under the Ministry of Religious Affairs, but is still guided by the Chief Rabbi. In its current form, the conversion system does not allow for many conversions. Therefore, many Israeli citizens who are not considered Jews according to the rabbinate but immigrated under the Law of Return, about 460,000 people, are not recognized as Jews by the Israeli government.

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The new bill proposes to expand conversion options. Instead of a small number of conversion, rabbinical courts that usually follow strict halakhic approaches, the new bill proposes to allow local rabbis to establish their own conversion courts. This will ensure that rabbis who adopt more inclusive halakhic approaches, which are currently excluded from the conversion process of the State of Israel, will be able to officially convert and accept those who wish to join the Jewish people. In Israel, conversion is not only a matter of belonging to a people, but it also has legal implications. Religious conversion in Israel requires the rabbinate to recognize the Judaism of the convert and allow her to marry, divorce and be buried as a Jew.

So how does this bill affect Diaspora Jews? As stated, the bill deals mainly with the conversion of Israeli citizens and hardly touches the conversion of foreign nationals. However, it will for the first time regulate how conversion takes place in Israel. Therefore, for the first time, the bill would also regulate how foreign nationals, including Diaspora Jews, can undergo a conversion process in Israel. In addition, anyone who lives outside of Israel but is entitled to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return and is not considered a Jew according to Halacha – that is, someone who only has a Jewish father, grandfather or grandmother, will at some point be able to enjoy more options for joining the Jewish people.

The bill also affects the status of non-Orthodox converts. Although one of the agreements within the current coalition is that the expansion of conversion options will remain within Orthodoxy, at the same time there is an understanding and agreement that the achievements of the non-Orthodox movements obtained through petitions to the High Court will remain intact. The most recent of these achievements is the ruling of the Supreme Court about a year ago that first recognized non-Orthodox conversions that took place in Israel as being covered by the Law of Return. In the proposed bill, this ruling and others will not be reversed, unlike previous proposed conversion legislation.

Finally, any law passed in Israel that directly concerns the question of the boundaries of the Jewish people greatly affects the status of those who set these boundaries in the Diaspora as well. Conversion courts in the Diaspora that haven’t been recognized before will be able to request recognition after the law is passed. In many countries, there is only one conversion court recognized by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and those monopolies will likely be contested if the proposed bill were to pass.

The question of who can convert to Judaism directly relates to the question of “Who is a Jew?” which deserves to be discussed in dialogue with and in consideration of the variety of voices and views that exist among the Jewish people. It is therefore for the best that Bezalel Smotrich travels to consult with who he considers leaders in the Diaspora, and the Israeli government and the Knesset members backing the proposed bill should make sure that all facets of the Jewish people have a say in the matter.

About the Author
Tani Frank is the Director of the Judaism and State Policy Center (JSPC) at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
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