Conversion bill moratorium extended another 6 months

ByJONAH MANDEL
January 10, 2011 16:16

Israel Beiteinu, Shas agree to temporary deal; Non-Orthodox streams essentially pleased, with no word from Chief Rabbinate.

Natan Sharansky

Natan Sharansky 311. (photo credit:Ariel Jerozolimski)

The overall moratorium on legal actions that could change the status quo of conversions in Israel has been extended by another six months in a deal brokered by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser, it was revealed on Monday.

The government – specifically Israel Beiteinu, whose conversion bill caused the hubbub that prompted the initial moratorium in July, and Shas, which supported the bill – agreed to refrain from advancing legislation on the matter until July 10. At the same time, the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements will hold off with petitions to the High Court of Justice demanding a more egalitarian stance toward non-Orthodox conversions.



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In the interim, Sharansky and Hauser will chair a forum to include representatives of the Interior Ministry, Justice Ministry, the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, and the Jewish Agency. The panel will attempt to address bureaucratic issues that converts and potential converts might encounter with the Chief Rabbinate and with other Israeli authorities, and to streamline the bureaucracy.

At this stage, the forum does not include a representative of the Chief Rabbinate or the state’s Conversion Authority. It is also not clear whether the moratorium includes Israel Beiteinu’s recently proposed military conversion legislation, which is a private member’s bill.


In July, the Prime Minister’s Office mediated the first sixmonth moratorium after Israel Beiteinu’s legislation raised the ire of the non-Orthodox movements in North America, and even of the continent’s Jewish federations. They said the bill would cause irreparable damage to Diaspora relations with the Jewish state, since the law, for the first time ever, defined the Chief Rabbinate as the body ultimately responsible for conversions in Israel. They feared that this definition might change the current situation in which non-Orthodox conversions performed abroad are recognized by the State of Israel for the Law of Return, and exerted heavy pressure upon Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to halt the bill.

In a letter to the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors on Monday, Sharansky noted the achievement of obtaining the agreement of “all the relevant bodies” to “to continue the meaningful dialogue in order to preserve Jewish unity.”

“Those who have followed this issue and understand the difficulties and sensitivities can appreciate this meaningful step in making the dialogue feasible and constructive,” he wrote.

Israel’s Reform movement praised Netanyahu “for his dedication to the unity of the Jewish people.”

“We hope that the prime minister’s commitment will prevent any future unilateral legislation that would exclude the non-Orthodox movements and discriminate against them,” Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the movement’s head, said Monday.

Kariv stressed that the solutions needed for converts from all religious streams, in Israel and in the Diaspora, would be reached “by fortifying the moderate elements in the Orthodox world and curbing the trends of radicalization in Israel’s rabbinic establishment, and by not giving the factors behind these trends the monopoly on the issue.” He was referring to the original conversion bill, which sought to give the Chief Rabbinate ultimate responsibility over conversions in Israel.

The Masorti Movement said the nod it gave to the moratorium extension had not been easy, since “each of the pending High Court of Justice petitions is an entire world that tells a story of abuse, at times intentional, of the basic rights of Jews according to the Law of Return.”

However, the movement accepted the proposal, said Yizhar Hess, its CEO, “out of full trust in the prime minister’s stance, which determines that in the Jewish state, principles on conversion should not be set without the broad agreement of all parts of the Jewish people.”

“With cautious hope we welcome the decision to conduct ongoing dialogue through the [forum], which will deal with cases in which converts are subject to nonegalitarian treatment by the state authorities just because their Judaism is not Orthodox,” Hess said.

Israel Beiteinu, Shas and the Chief Rabbinate had no comment on the moratorium extension.

On Monday night, the Jewish Federations of North American (JFNA) welcomed the extension, saying it believed the additional time could be used to reach a resolution that would preserve the intent of the original bill while omitting its “problematic language.”

“The Federation movement has been working closely with the Jewish Agency for Israel and religious movements on the issue of conversion in Israel for the past six months,” said Kathy Manning, who chairs the JFNA board of trustees. “We warmly welcome this new agreement, which will give an opportunity for great dialogue and understanding among all parties involved. It is indeed an important step in ongoing efforts to promote Jewish unity.”

The world’s biggest network of Jewish fund-raising organizations, JFNA focuses its efforts on philanthropy and rarely gets involved in Israeli politics.

However, officials said the organization decided to come out against the bill because it was “so close to the hearts of mainstream North American Jewry.”

JFNA president and CEO Jerry Silverman added: “The new moratorium is a victory for the cause of reason and unity. We are convinced that through dialogue a formula can be found that retains the basic positive aim of the original bill while finding language that is acceptable to all sides.”

Gil Shefler contributed to this report
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