ACTIVISTS TAKE part in a demonstration in Jerusalem in July against legislation that would have strengthened the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over conversion in Israel.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Former Justice Minister Moshe Nissim presented a draft of a new conversion law on Sunday, while accusing the chief rabbinate and others of encouraging intermarriage in Israel by refusing to deal with the large number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union or their descendants who are not Jewish according to Jewish law.
Nissim issued a fierce broadside against chief rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau, who have already denounced the bill. Nissim insisted that his proposal allows for conversion is strictly in accordance with Orthodox Jewish law, but that it admits a less-severe attitude than has hitherto been reflected in the current conversion authority.
Yosef and Lau convened a meeting in the Chief Rabbinate on Sunday with numerous rabbis, including some senior rabbis from the conservative wing of the national religious community to declare their opposition since the bill would make the new conversion authority independent of the Chief Rabbinate.
It would nevertheless be run by Orthodox rabbinical judges with ordination from the Chief Rabbinate.
Speaking at a press conference introducing the new proposals, Nissim began by emphasizing the growing number of citizens from the former Soviet Union, or their descendants, who are not halachically Jewish and said it was leading to intermarriage in the Jewish state, which he described as an existential threat to the Jewish people.
Nissim said that there are now as many as 400,000 people in such a category who are “thoroughly integrated” into Israeli society, and that this number could grow to over 500,000 in another 12 years.
“To my distress, the governments of Israel have sinned, since from the beginning of the aliya [of Soviet Jewry], we should have thought about this problem,” he said, adding that the issue was only broached in 1998 when the state conversion authority was established.
Nissim said however that the state conversion authority has been “a disappointment” since it failed to reflect the potential crisis of Jewish intermarriage in Israel posed by the large number of non-Jewish citizens from the former Soviet Union.
“Is Maimonides invalid? What about Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and Rabbi Shlomo Kluger who said [accepting] the commandments is not part of conversion?” Nissim stormed, when asked about the chief rabbis’ opposition to his proposals.
Nissim later presented his recommendations to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said he will review the document and that he remains “committed to continuing to identify solutions that strengthen unity among the Jewish people and respect for Jewish tradition.”
Under the terms of the proposed law, the head of the new conversion authority would be empowered to approve conversions without the input of the chief rabbi.
The bill says explicitly that conversions in the state authority will be done in accordance with Orthodox Jewish law; that only conversions performed through the state authority would be legally recognized; and that any other conversions would have no legal relevance. The committee to appoint rabbinical judges to the conversion courts would include the two chief rabbis and the head of the Conversion Authority, but they would not have a veto, while two representatives of the non-Orthodox movements would also be included on the committee.
In addition, Reform and Conservative conversions done abroad would be formally recognized by the state and such converts would be accepted for citizenship under the Law of Return, although this is already the de facto situation due to a High Court ruling in 2002.
Another clause states that the right of non-state converts, such as those of the non-Orthodox movements, to register in the Interior Ministry as Jewish will not be revoked, one of the key rights won by progressive Jewish movements in Israel over the years.
Along with the chief rabbis, United Torah Judaism has opposed the bill as has the National Union Party which is part of Bayit Yehudi.
Two of the most respected national-religious rabbis in the country – Rabbi Haim Druckman and Rabbi Yaakov Ariel – both signed a document saying they supported Nissim’s bill, but Ariel later withdrew his support, saying he had been deceived.
Nissim said in turn on Sunday that Ariel had been deceived, and that Druckman continues to support his recommendations.
Druckman told The Jerusalem Post
he was unable to discuss the issue at present.