Israeli politics frequently reminds me of the children’s game Simon Says. It is sometimes difficult to see who the Simon is who is pulling the strings and sometimes it is crystal clear. Simon can be almost any narrow minded party but it is usually the party or parties that have the most to gain in the coalition in terms of the raping the Israeli economy and/or holding unto patronage jobs.

On Sunday, the Simon(s) who repealed the conversion reform bill of 2014, and transferred the authority over the rabbinical courts from the Justice Ministry to the Ministry of Religious Services did so to strengthen the strangle-hold of the Haredim over religion in Israel by letting them determine who is a Jew. These are two giant steps backwards.

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This backtracking was not unexpected. The repeal of the conversion reform law was part of the coalition deal that Likud struck with United Torah Judaism (UTJ). This is very unfortunate because the reforms of the previous government a scant seven months ago were designed to make the conversion system more accessible for Orthodox conversions – the law never included the growing non-Orthodox branches of Judaism – of the 330,000 immigrants, and their sabra children, from the former Soviet Union who are in religious limbo. They are not considered to be Jewish, according to halacha, and they are unable to marry Jews in Israel.

The reforms essentially consisted of allowing community rabbis to set up conversion systems (up to 30 instead of the current four) that potentially could be less stringent and more welcoming. This was strongly opposed by the chief rabbis and the haredi parties. The weakness of the reform bill was that it was passed as a government order by the previous cabinet and it could be repealed by a new cabinet vote; and this is exactly what happened. While theoretically, community rabbis can still set up conversion systems, those systems would, under the new ruling, have to be approved by the council of the chief rabbinate; something they would never do.

The repeal of the Conversion laws was strongly criticized by Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency. He said, “The Jewish Agency cannot accept the fact that a matter so vital to the future of the Jewish people and to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is subject entirely to the configuration of the coalition at any given time and to government decisions adopted and then canceled after each election cycle.” He added that it would “act through other means in order to preserve the State of Israel’s Jewish character and continue the historic process of ingathering the exiles.”

Opposition leaders, including Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Lieberman, also condemned the repeal. He told the Jerusalem Post: “the country’s Jewish identity was being held captive by extremist haredi elements, and accused the government of betraying immigrants from the FSU by agreeing to the repeal.”

The cabinet also voted to take another giant step backwards when it approved the transfer the authority over the religious courts from the Justice ministry to the ministry of Religious Services. The religious courts already have a history of discriminating against women. Putting the court under the control of Shas’s David Azoulay (the man who said that Reform Jews are not Jews  and that women who go to the Kotel in tallitot and Tefilin are only there as a provocationis courting disaster for women. Emunah, a leading Orthodox women’s organization, asked the court for a temporary injunction to prevent the transfer of the religious court but it was denied.

Also on Sunday, Shas proposed a new law that would outlaw independent kosher supervision ensuring that the Chief Rabbinate remains the only authority that can issue Kashrut certificates and the patronage jobs that go with that. This law was withdrawn because the wording conflicted with Shas’s plan to lower food prices. Reducing competition will do exactly the opposite but we should expect this law to be reintroduced soon.

The Haredim are already taking advantage of their new political power to remove all the progress that was made in terms women’s rights and religious rights. Last week, a Jewish women wearing a kippah was denied entrance into the Kotel by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz’s Western Wall Heritage Foundation’s goons. What’s next?

This game of Simon Says, with the haredim calling the shots, has got to end.


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