A tentative agreement has been made between MK Elazar Stern and Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan in which a controversial bill proposed by Stern to reform the conversion process will be withdrawn while the principle of the legislation will be enacted by government order.
Stern’s bill proposes to give municipal chief rabbis the authority to establish conversion courts and thereby increase access to the conversion process in an effort to increase conversion rates principally among the community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of whom are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law.
There are only four conversion courts in the country – in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Ashkelon – and 31 rabbinical judges for conversion.
The bill is also designed to give the rabbinical judges more independence from the Chief Rabbinate in its conversion policy, and for this reason the Chief Rabbinate has fought fiercely against it, as has the Bayit Yehudi party.
On Sunday night, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef sent an urgent letter to the prime minister urging him to prevent the scheduled vote on the bill.
Yosef said the conversions done under Stern’s legislation would not be accepted by large parts of the Israeli public, referring to the haredi and conservative national-religious communities, which he said would harm the unity of the Jewish people.
On Monday morning, Stern (Hatnua), along with Ben-Dahan (Bayit Yehudi), Justice Minister and Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni and representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office met in order to come to an agreement on the issue, which has strained coalition ties.
The bill is poised for final approval in committee, where Stern has a majority in favor, and would then require second and third readings in the Knesset plenum, where it would also likely pass, due to support from opposition parties.
A vote on the bill in committee was scheduled for Monday morning, for a second week in a row, but Bayit Yehudi threatened to quit the coalition if the bill was approved, political sources told The Jerusalem Post.
During Monday’s meeting, a representative for the prime minister suggested that instead of passing legislation to allow municipal chief rabbis to establish conversion courts, a government order could be enacted that would have the same effect but require less detailed and specific clauses and conditions.
Bayit Yehudi officials were especially concerned about a clause in Stern’s bill that referenced non-Orthodox conversions.
Bayit Yehudi claimed that the bill would legitimize such conversions, although Stern said that the bill merely preserved their current standing whereby anyone converting through the Reform and Conservative movements is registered as Jewish by the Interior Ministry.
Enacting the idea of local conversion courts through a government decision obviates any necessity to refer to non-Orthodox conversions whatsoever, and Bayit Yehudi was therefore able to agree to the proposal.
Other details of the government order, which were contested during negotiations on the proposed bill, are yet to be fully agreed upon.
These include the question of what qualifications the other two members of local conversion courts will need, aside from the municipal chief rabbi, and whether registration will be available only on a regional basis according to the candidate’s place of residence or nationally in any of the new local courts that are established.
These details and others are expected to be ironed out during the course of the week, ahead of a vote to enact the government order this coming Sunday.
Director of the ITIM religious services advisory and lobbying group Rabbi Seth Farber cautiously welcomed the compromise solution.
“The creation of independent rabbinical courts which will be recognized by the state is something that ITIM has been advocating for a number of years,” Farber, an Orthodox rabbi, said.
“Our hope is that this will open the gates of conversion a bit wider and enable the state to begin to address fundamentally the demographic issues that imperil our future as a Jewish and democratic state,” he continued, in reference to the possibility of growing intermarriage between Jewish Israelis and Israeli citizens, or their children, from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to Jewish law.