Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during a reception hosted by the Orthodox Union in Jerusalem ahead of the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
New Right leader Naftali Bennett has promised to pass a law allowing municipal chief rabbis the ability to conduct Jewish conversions as a way of solving what he described as a “time bomb” of Jewish intermarriage in Israel.
The conversion issue is notably the flagship concern of former Shas MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem, who is No. 2 on the electoral list of the Zehut Party with whom Bennett would like to unite his New Right outfit.
In a Facebook post he wrote over the weekend, Bennett noted the large number of Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union integrated into Jewish society who are the descendants of Jews and who marry Israeli Jews, but are not Jewish according to Jewish law.
This problem of potential Jewish intermarriage has concerned the National-Religious community, for the most part, since the large waves of Russian Jews began immigrating to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, but has remained unresolved.
In his Facebook post on Friday, Bennett highlighted the issue and blamed it on the Chief Rabbinate, which he said had been in “haredi hands for many years,” for having curtailed the ability of municipal chief rabbis to perform conversions and for making conversion stricter and the process less welcoming.
The former education minister said that should he be elected, he would solve it by passing legislation in the next government that would restore the right of municipal chief rabbis to convene conversion courts themselves, something he said would lead to less stringent demands and a friendlier approach to conversion. This, he claimed, would raise the number of conversions every year from around 2,000 to 10,000.
“We have a severe problem, a time bomb, of half a million Israelis who live as Jews exactly like us, feel Jewish, serve in [IDF] combat units, but are however not Jewish according to Jewish law, and are therefore not Jewish,” wrote Bennett.
He also made some sweeping statements, such as that the non-Jewish immigrants – and their children – from the former Soviet Union “want and are willing to accept upon themselves everything required in accordance with Jewish law in order to convert and become Jews.” The problem, he said, was that “the Chief Rabbinate, which is today in haredi hands, simply does not allow them to convert in accordance with Jewish law.”
Bennett also insisted on a liberal interpretation of the requirements of a convert, asserting that “the most important thing in conversion is the desire to join the Jewish people and be a part of our joint fate,” a definition that does not discuss the requirement to accept the “yoke of Jewish law.”
He concluded that “‘Stringency’ on conversions is boosting intermarriage. Those who are supposedly strict are causing massive damage to the Jewish people.”
Bennett’s proposal to allow municipal city rabbis to convert actually stems from legislation proposed by MK Elazar Stern in 2013 during the course of the 33rd government – which did not include haredi parties – that was backed by liberal-leaning National-Religious rabbis and organizations.
The legislation advanced to the cusp of final approval by the Knesset, but following intense pressure from the Chief Rabbinate, the haredi parties and hard-line, conservative elements in the National-Religious community, the MKs agreed to pass the measure simply as a cabinet resolution and not legislation.
At the beginning of the last government, the haredi parties as well as hard-line rabbinical leaders from the National-Religious community forced through a change to the resolution, which gave the Chief Rabbinate authority over which municipal chief rabbis could form conversion courts, essentially giving the body a veto over liberal-minded rabbis who want to increase conversions to solve the intermarriage problem.
Bennett and his ally Ayelet Shaked voted against the motion in the cabinet, but did not attempt to halt it politically.
Bennett said in his Facebook post that in the next government he would promote the measure into full legislation, which cannot be changed or annulled by a simple cabinet decision.
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