Although it may seem that the current coalition crisis over Jewish conversion has sprung up out of nowhere, in truth it has been brewing steadily over the last year.
The heart of the matter appears to be the ever increasing demands of the haredi-controlled religious establishment for centralized control of matters of Jewish status such as marriage, divorce, and conversion in Israel and even in the Diaspora.
But a ruling by the High Court of Justice in March 2016 struck a particularly hefty blow against this trend, when it de facto gave state-recognition to Orthodox conversions performed outside of the state conversion authority, allowing such a convert to register as Jewish with the Interior Ministry and gain citizenship under the Law of Return if they were not already a citizen.
This ruling also imperiled the Chief Rabbinate’s ability to reject such converts for marriage registration, and at the same time set a precedent for potential state recognition for Reform and Conservative converts in an upcoming ruling of the High Court.
After the ruling, United Torah Judaism and Shas leaders Leaders said immediately that they would introduce legislation to circumvent the ruling, but failed to do so until now.
But the High Court is shortly expected to rule on the issue of Reform and Conservative converts, which has prompted UTJ and Shas to advanced the legislation.
This would all have been less of a problem if Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party had not been added to the coalition last year.
The conversion issue is important to Liberman’s constituency of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and the haredi conversion law, and Liberman has personally backed an independent Orthodox conversion court which is trying to convert as many non-Jewish immigrants as it can to resolve a looming inter-marriage crisis in Israel.
Liberman has also been increasingly willing to speak out against the excesses of the haredi parties for repealing the haredi conscription law and encouraging haredi men not to seek employment by massively increasing yeshiva stipends and other financial benefits to the haredi sector.
Several weeks ago he described what he said was the “fake reality” created by the haredi leadership of employment and military service being incompatible with Jewish life.
Where this leaves the government is of course difficult to predict.
The coalition technically does not need Yisrael Beytenu since it survived for a year without them, although left Netanyahu exposed to the whims of every MK who wanted to get flex their muscles and obtain a political victory.
And the prime minister has proved than he is loathe to upset his loyal haredi partners, having surrendered to their demands on implementation of the Western Wall agreement, haredi enlistment, the increase in yeshiva stipends which has reversed the trend of increasing numbers of haredi men entering the workforce, and the repeal of a previous conversion law passed by the last government.
However, Netanyahu is attentive to the concerns of Diaspora Jewry, especially in North America, who bitterly oppose the law since it would forever invalidate state recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions.
With Diaspora leaders in town for the Jewish Agency meetings, the prime minister will certainly be feeling their anger in the coming days, so some form of delaying tactic, such as postponing passage to the Knesset and establishing a committee may be the likeliest outcome for the near future.
One noticeable absentee from the conversion debate has been Bayit Yehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett, who could, if he so wished, help block the haredi bill
Despite his image as a more modern, religiously open leader, having gone so far as to call Conservative Jews “brothers” during the last government, Bennett has paid scant attention to religion and state issues in the current government.
He has generally been willing to let the hardline, conservative elements in his part determine the party’s direction on such issues, and, like Netanyahu, is also unwilling to upset the haredi parties perhaps with an eye on the future and designs to inherit the mantle of leader of the right wing when the prime minister’s era is over.
At a time when Bennett has been unceasing in his criticism of Liberman precisely because of the former’s desire to lead the right wing, it is hard to imagine the Bayit Yehudi leader siding with his political foe at this time.
The conversion bill is bitterly opposed by the Reform and Conservative Movements in Israel and North America, and approval of it will
Along with this latest conversion crisis, two other crucial matters of religion and state are currently vexing the governing coalition: the Shabbat wars and the Western Wall resolution.
The timing of these crises is also largely caused by the High Court, which ruled recently that Tel-Aviv’s municipal by-law allowing greater numbers of grocery stores to open on Shabbat must be implemented and which threatens to intervene in the row of the egalitarian section at the Western Wall.
With regard to the Western Wall, there is no hope that the large, government mandated egalitarian section at the Western Wall proposed by the January 2016 government resolution will be constructed any time soon.
The haredi parties, having initially allowed the resolution to pass, now oppose it so vociferously that implementation has been totally frozen.
Netanyahu has said on several occasions that he will not endanger his coalition over the issue, so there is almost no possibility that this resolution will be implemented in the life of the current government, and indeed any government that includes UTJ and Shas.
This will naturally cause more disquiet and resentment among progressive Jews in the Diaspora, particularly North America, but there will be little they can do to get satisfaction on this cause.
The most they could hope for would be some kind of indication, formal or otherwise, that the State of Israel is still committed in the long-term to this kind of arrangement despite a decision to put it on ice at the moment.
The war over Tel Aviv’s Shabbat bylaw is perhaps more complicated. The haredi parties will most likely need to legislate a new law to overide Tel Aviv’s by law, but elements in Kulanu, such as MK Rachel Azaria, strongly oppose tightening commercial restrictions on Shabbat without a compromise on leisure activities and public transport.
It remains to be seen how forcefully Shas and UTJ will press this issue, especially given the fact that Shas chairman Aryeh Deri last year expressed his reluctance to interfere with the Shabbat activities of secular Tel Aviv residents.