Explosive legislation is being advanced by haredi political parties that would revoke the state’s recognition of citizenship rights for private Orthodox conversions, as well as the rights of Reform and Conservative converts to be registered as Jewish in the Interior Ministry.
The legislation has outraged the progressive Jewish movements in Israel as well as Orthodox conversion activists, and could cause a further deterioration of the state’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry.
The bill, which was submitted to the Knesset on Wednesday by the Interior Ministry, would allow the state to recognize only conversions performed by its own institutions, meaning the State Conversion Authority under the guidance of the Chief Rabbinate.
The stated purpose of the legislation is to restore the right of the state to control access to citizenship, following a High Court of Justice ruling in March 2016 that non-Israelis who convert in private Orthodox rabbinical courts in Israel should be eligible for citizenship under the terms of the Law of Return.
But critics of the proposed law argue that strict measures are in place to avoid any abuse of conversion for the purposes of citizenship rights, and that the bill is simply a cover for strengthening the Chief Rabbinate’s control over Jewish life in Israel.
The 2016 landmark ruling amounted to de facto state recognition of private Orthodox conversions, meaning that the Interior Ministry would also have to register such converts as Jewish in its population registry.
Such converts have already begun to claim citizenship based on this ruling, which will create further legal headaches for the Chief Rabbinate in the future if it refuses to allow such converts to marry.
Another motivating factor for Shas and the proponents of the legislation is a High Court hearing next week on a petition by the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements which demands that their converts be given citizenship rights.
Currently, an Israeli citizen or resident who converts through the Reform or Masorti movements is able to register as Jewish in the Population and Immigration Authority of the Interior Ministry, although such converts who are not citizens cannot obtain citizenship under the Law of Return.
The March 2016 High Court ruling was considered to be of historic importance by conversion activists, including the ITIM organization which brought the petition to the court, because it paved the way for the possible eligibility for those who converted in private Orthodox converts to marry through the Chief Rabbinate.
This is of critical importance, since it would allow for the full integration of citizens from the former Soviet Union who convert through private Orthodox courts into all aspects of Jewish life in Israel.
The Giyur Ka’halacha private Orthodox court, set up by ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber and others in 2015, seeks to do exactly that, by converting minors (with parental consent) from families who came from the Soviet Union and creating a more welcoming conversion process for adults wishing to convert as well.
The current legislation would do serious damage to these efforts.
“This bill being advanced by the haredi members of the government in practice contradicts Jewish law,” said Farber. “Over hundreds of years, different rabbinical courts were operational within Jewish communities, with different approaches to Jewish law, some stringent and some less so. The common denominator was that in the end everyone recognized everyone else’s conversions, except in some exceptionally unusual cases.”
A senior Shas official close to party chairman and Interior Minister Arye Deri as well as to Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef argued, however, that the state should be in full control of all methods of obtaining citizenship.
“We’re not prepared to have a marketplace for conversion; it will just be chaos and just like people cannot get married or drive a car without a license from the state, so, too, you shouldn’t be able to convert and get citizenship without a state license,” the official told The Jerusalem Post. “Conversion is essentially like a [US] Green Card, and just like those are not distributed by private individuals or institutions, so, too, conversions can’t be conducted by private organizations either.”
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform Movement in Israel, described this argument as “a shameful lie,” and pointed out that the Reform and Masorti movements have a strict policy of not converting foreign workers residing in Israel, a policy the state has acknowledged in court, in response to the petitions of the progressive Jewish movements.
Giyur Ka’halacha has the same policy not to convert foreign workers.
Kariv also said that the High Court has largely dismissed the state’s legal claims in the Reform and Masorti petition, which was submitted over a decade ago, and alleged that the new bill is simply an effort to convince the court that the government is poised to legislate on the issue so as to ward off a damaging ruling.
“If this bill is advanced, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have to come before the board of governors of the Jewish Agency in June and tell them about how he is dragging the entire Jewish people into an unnecessary war over conversion, when the only reason for it is to protect the haredi monopoly over Jewish life,” said Kariv.
The Reform leader also took aim at Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, whose Yisrael Beytenu party has many constituents from the former Soviet Union who will be affected by the legislation, saying that Liberman would have to explain to his voters how he could allow a law to pass that would damage their rights.
Yisrael Beytenu did not respond to a request for comment.
Director of the Masorti Movement in Israel Yizhar Hess described the effort to pass the legislation as a “pathetic” and “hopeless” attempt to shore up the religious establishment.
“Even the cruelest monopolies become pathetic the moment before they collapse,” said Hess. “But the horses have already bolted the stable. Private Orthodox conversions will be recognized and so will Conservative and Reform conversions.
The more the Chief Rabbinate continues to make itself so objectionable, and the more the haredi parties help it, the closer it brings its monopoly to an end.”