The contentious conversion law that has generated political instability in recent months was approved on Sunday by the cabinet, paving the way for municipal chief rabbis to establish their own conversion courts.
The approval of the government order was hailed by proponents as a significant breakthrough in efforts to increase conversion rates among non-Jewish Israeli citizens who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union under the Law of Return.
The reforms enacted on Sunday were advanced by Hatnua MK Elazar Stern, who partnered with several organizations soon after the last elections in order to broaden access to the conversion process.
The government order itself was proposed by Hatnua chairwoman and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni along with Bayit Yehudi chairman and Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett, and was approved by the cabinet, with only Bayit Yehudi’s Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel voting against it.
The chief rabbis and the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) political parties have, however, evinced great hostility toward the reforms.
Immediately after the cabinet approved the government order, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said the Chief Rabbinate would not accept it and that he would convene a meeting of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate to discuss how it would deal with the situation.
During a press conference held by Stern, Livni and Yisrael Beytenu MK David Rotem, who played a significant role in assuring the passage of the reforms, Stern called on the chief rabbis to reconsider their stance.
“The chief rabbis know that this decision involves no infringement of Jewish law,” said Stern.
“If they really want unity and want to preserve the Jewish character of the State of Israel, they should announce to the Jewish people that these conversions will be accepted by the Chief Rabbinate not only because of the government order but because this is indeed the truth that these are valid conversions,” he said.
Stern and others believe that it will be possible to implement the order despite the opposition of the chief rabbis due to the independence granted to any new courts established under its terms.
The MK called the change “good news” for the Jewish people, and said he would work swiftly to begin implementation.
“These courts will bring a new spirit for the many conversion candidates, especially those who have despaired of converting,” he said, thanking Livni, as well as Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beytenu, Labor, Meretz, and Kadima, although noticeably not the Likud.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu almost scuppered the reform when he withdrew his support for it two weeks ago, but was forced to bring it back to a vote when legislation in the Knesset containing similar reforms was approved in committee for its final readings.
Livni said the order would allow a conversion process commensurate with Judaism, but that it was more welcoming and open to the immigrant community living in Israel, and praised Stern for his work in getting it approved.
“There are Israeli citizens living with us whom we encouraged to come to Israel...
who aren’t Jewish according to Jewish law, and the message we are giving to them today, those who have felt like second-class citizens from the moment they landed here in the airport, is that we are opening a new gate, not one of citizenship, but a gate to join the Jewish people,” said Livni.
Bennett welcomed the reform, saying that it would greatly increase the options for conversion candidates by allowing rabbis with a warmer and more welcoming approach to conversion, which can be a troubling and arduous experience for some candidates, to establish their own courts.
“This is huge news for Israel,” said Bennett. “Many Israelis grew up with a Jewish identity but were not Jewish according to Jewish law and were reluctant to start the conversion process. I call on them to apply to a conversion program now.”
Bennett noted that Bayit Yehudi had reached an agreement with Stern and Livni several months ago to pass the government order, and that the prime minister had withdrawn his support “due to haredi political pressure.”
He called the order “responsible and balanced” and in keeping with Jewish law. He added that he had permitted a free vote in the cabinet for Bayit Yehudi ministers, thereby allowing Ariel to oppose the measure, since it was certain to be approved.
Several Bayit Yehudi MKs, including Ariel, had opposed both the legislation and the government order due to the intense opposition of hardline national-religious rabbis to the reforms.
Under the terms of the order, a steering committee, comprised of Rabbi Tzafania Drori, Rabbi Haim Druckman, Rabbi Ya’acov Medan, Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz and Rabbi Nahum Rabinowitz, will convene within the next 14 days.
They will draw up the operational guidelines for the new courts and present them within 30 days of convening to Bennett and Livni for their approval.
A government order has the force of law and can be approved by a simple cabinet decision. However, it can also be revoked by another cabinet decision in the future.
The law allows municipal chief rabbis to establish their own conversion courts, along with another two rabbis who meet the various criteria stipulated in the government order.
The purpose of the law is to prevent intermarriage in Israel between Jews and Israeli citizens who are of Jewish descent but are not Jewish according to Jewish law. There are some 330,000 people who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union who fall into this category.
The idea is that more liberally inclined rabbis will be able to utilize leniencies stipulated in Jewish law to convert greater numbers of Israelis of Jewish descent, as compared to what is seen as a stricter, less welcoming approach of the rabbinical judges serving on the four existing conversion courts.
Although the chief rabbis have said they will not recognize conversions performed by such courts, proponents of the order argue that it will still be possible to implement the reforms, and that despite the position of the chief rabbis, the law establishes independence for any of the newly created conversion courts to convert a candidate according to the opinion of the three rabbinical judges on the case.
Since registration for marriage can be conducted in any municipal jurisdiction regardless of the place of residence of the engaged couple, proponents of the change argue that the Chief Rabbinate can be circumvented, since municipal chief rabbis who do accept the conversions conducted under the new courts will also be willing to register those converts for marriage.
The Tzohar rabbinical association, which was heavily involved in advancing the conversion reforms, described the passage of the government order as “a victory for those who oppose the continued assimilation within Israeli society and the future of the Jewish people.”
“The government of Israel took responsibility this morning for our country’s future and ratified a decision that will benefit hundreds of thousands of Israelis who had been stymied for years by an outdated and unfriendly conversion process at the hands of the Chief Rabbinate,” said Tzohar founder and chairman Rabbi David Stav.
“Should this reform not have been accepted, we would have been witness to an irreversible path of assimilation not unlike that which exists in Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora,” he said.
ITIM religious services advisory and lobbying group director Rabbi Seth Farber, who was involved in drafting the initial legislation, said that the approval of the order was “a great accomplishment that will actually change the status quo and enable the possibility for real change in religious life in Israel.”
“While it’s not perfect, it does provide the opportunity to be a game-changer for conversion in Israel by enabling the creation of conversion courts that will implement a greater range of halachic possibilities for conversion,” he said.
“Given the enormous challenges facing the immigrant population and their children, this is truly a great day for the immigrants their families and all the citizens of the State of Israel,” he added.
However, haredi political leaders were quick to denounce the reform. Shas chairman Arye Deri said it “primarily hurts the converts, since many rabbinical courts in Israel and around the world will not recognize them as Jewish,” and accused the government of seeking to attract voters and not thinking of the good of the converts themselves.
United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni said that the order represented another step in “the wave of destruction unleashed by this government.”
“This government has turned the issue of the Jewish people into a political commodity for trade and the politicians think they will gain votes for it. We’re talking about the destruction of the Jewish people. A significant portion of the rabbis in Israel and around the world will not recognize the converts as Jewish and these converts will be injured by this and will not forgive the government for this decision,” he said.
Gafni said that the haredi parties would work to overturn the change.
The Reform Movement in Israel said that the order would be “a moment of truth” for national-religious rabbis and that the coming months would show whether or not they will act out of concern “for the Israeli public or for extremist elements in the Orthodox establishment.”
Conservative Movement in Israel director Yizhar Hess welcomed the passage of the government order, calling it a “type of democratization within the corrupt Chief Rabbinate.”
“It is a small but important step toward the gradual dismantlement of the Orthodox establishment,” said Hess.
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky also welcomed the order.
“This reform of the conversion process is crucial to the successful absorption and integration of many immigrant Israelis,” he said. “The measures adopted by the government will enable many immigrants and citizens who have connected their fates and futures to the State of Israel to join the Jewish people in a more inviting manner.
“This is an important effort to strengthen the ties between the different parts of the Jewish people in Israel and around the world, while maintaining a framework that is agreed upon by all,” he said.