Bowing to haredi pressure, the government on Sunday delivered two fierce and stinging blows to progressive Jewish denominations in Israel and the Diaspora, as well as moderate Orthodox groups in Israel, by indefinitely freezing its Western Wall resolution and approving a bill granting the Chief Rabbinate a total monopoly on conversion.
The cabinet decision to repeal the resolution creating a state-recognized egalitarian prayer section at the southern end of the Western Wall puts an end to dreams of the Reform and Conservative movements for a grand site for their worshipers at the heart of the Jewish people. The conversion law will continue on to the Knesset and, if enacted, will revoke all state recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions for the purpose of registration with the Interior Ministry.It will also revoke state recognition of Orthodox converts who converted in nonstate, Orthodox rabbinical courts and the right of such converts who are not citizens to gain citizenship under the Law of Return.The decision to repeal the Western Wall agreement was taken through a cabinet vote opposed only by Defense Minister and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz of Likud, with no abstentions.Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett said he was at an intelligence briefing during the vote, but would have abstained or voted against had he been present.The move comes as a severe blow to the Reform and Conservative movements both in Israel and the Diaspora, who had hailed the January 2016 Western Wall agreement as a historic day of recognition by the Israeli government of their forms of Judaism.Any attempt to implement the agreement will now need a new cabinet decision, something that will not be forthcoming in the current government or any government containing the ultra-Orthodox political parties United Torah Judaism and Shas.According to the Prime Minister’s Office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman to come up with a new plan.In the meantime, Netanyahu has ordered construction work to begin on upgrading the current egalitarian prayer space at the southern end of the Western Wall.Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Hanegbi said the prime minister had decided to take this step to make the site “more dignified, more suitable for prayer and more aesthetically pleasing,” and to “provide Reform and Conservative Jews with a fitting place to worship in accordance with their beliefs.”He also said upgrading the site in this way would help ward off intervention from the High Court of Justice, which has a petition from the progressive Jewish denominations and Women of the Wall group demanding either implementation of the original government decision or an egalitarian prayer space at the central Western Wall plaza.The decision to scrap the agreement was largely prompted by the June 26 deadline set by the High Court of Justice for the state to respond to petitions against the government by the progressive Jewish moments over implementation of the agreement.The haredi parties were extremely concerned that the High Court would intervene on the side of those demanding a government-recognized egalitarian section and, therefore, sought to preemptively circumvent such a situation.The original resolution had determined that a large, state-recognized egalitarian section would be created at the southern end of the Western Wall that would be accessible from the main Western Wall complex and run by a board including progressive Jewish representatives and members of the Women of the Wall organization.Implementation of the agreement was frozen almost immediately, however, after the haredi parties who allowed the deal to be approved retreated from this position in the face of severe criticism from the ultra-Orthodox online media and the chief rabbis.The second haredi victory Sunday was the approval by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation of the controversial conversion law advanced by United Torah Judaism and Shas to grant the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over Jewish conversion in Israel.The legislation received the backing of the overwhelming majority of ministers in the committee, apart from Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver who voted against it, in line with the opposition of Liberman.Landver subsequently appealed the decision, meaning the bill will now need to gain a majority in a vote of the full cabinet before it can pass to the Knesset.Pursuant to a High Court ruling in March 2016, converts who converted through non-state Orthodox rabbinical courts could register as Jewish in the Interior Ministry and gain citizenship under the Law of Return if they were not already citizens.In addition, Reform and Conservative converts could register as Jewish in the Interior Ministry, while a pending ruling of the High Court could also grant citizenship to such converts who are not already citizens, such as in the 2016 ruling.The new law, however, would abolish all such recognition and rights for such converts and make conversion through the State Conversion Authority, which is under the guidance of the Chief Rabbinate, the only conversion with any legal standing in the country.The legislation is a government bill that has been advanced by Shas and United Torah Judaism through the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by Shas chairman and Interior Minister Arye Deri.The proposed law explicitly states that it is designed to reverse the legal situation created by the March 2016 ruling.That decision was seen as an especially severe blow to the Chief Rabbinate and religious establishment, and set a precedent whereby it was possible to envision a situation in which the Chief Rabbinate would be forced to recognize non-state Orthodox converts for the purposes of marriage.Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef warmly welcomed the decision, saying it was “unthinkable that non-Orthodox conversions and unsupervised private conversions could be recognized here in Israel.”However, Rabbi Nachum Rabinovich, a widely respected arbiter of Jewish law, dean of the Birkat Moshe Hesder Yeshiva in Ma’aleh Adumim and leading rabbi of the independent Orthodox rabbinical court, denounced the bill.“The proposed legislation directly hurts thousands of converts who converted in Israel over the years and is also in complete contradiction to Halacha,” Rabinovich wrote, referring to Jewish law.“There was never a precedent for a senior rabbinical authority interfering with these matters [of conversions in private communities],” he continued.He added that, were Bayit Yehudi leaders to support the bill, it would be “a permanent stain” on the party.Justice Minister and chair of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation Ayelet Shaked, of Bayit Yehudi, did indeed vote in favor of the bill.Rabbi David Stav, chairman of the religious Zionist organization Tzohar and a rabbinical judge on the Giyur Kahalacha court, also condemned the approval of the bill and Bayit Yehudi’s support of it.“Both the government and those representatives of Religious- Zionism within it established that they prefer a coalition including anti-Zionist elements over the unity of the Jewish people,” said Stav.Rabbi Seth Farber, one of the founders of Giyur Kahalacha, said that by approving the bill, the government was turning its back on tens thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.“For the first time, there is a real chance of converting tens of thousands through the model of converting children [with parental consent] used by Giyur Kahalacha,” said Farber.“Instead of embracing the private conversion program, the government has outlawed it. This behavior is unprecedented in Jewish history. Even when Hillel converted those Shamai rejected, the Sanhedrin didn’t insist on outlawing Hillel’s bet din [court]. Bayit Yehudi, which was once the great champion of the Russian aliya, today turned its back on immigrants.”Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform Movement in Israel, said approval of the bill meant that the government had turned against “not only Reform and Conservative Jews, but also against anyone who believes in moderate and welcoming Judaism and the Zionist vision of an ingathering of exiles.”
Israel freezes plan for mixed-sex Jewish prayer site at Western Wall (credit: REUTERS)