Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A heated debate took place on Tuesday in the Knesset over the future of a controversial government committee for conversion applications, with Bayit Yehudi members Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan and MK Bezalel Smotrich taking up opposite sides on the issue.
The body, known as the Exceptions Committee, which has been the subject of intense criticism in recent years, came under even greater scrutiny on Tuesday, as the Knesset State Comptroller Committee discussed its operations.
The committee is comprised of three people and, along with the entire state conversion authority, falls under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office. Any resident of Israel who is not a citizen and does not have a right to citizenship must be accepted by the Exceptions Committee before being able to undergo the conversion process.
The body was initially established to prevent foreign workers and illegal residents from exploiting conversion as a route to Israeli citizenship, but was heavily criticized by the 2013 State Comptroller’s Report which stated that the acceptance preconditions of the committee were unnecessarily strict.
According to ITIM, a religious services advisory and lobbying group, many applicants are people married to Israelis who were married abroad and now live in Israel but for whom the committee causes extensive delays before permitting them to begin conversion.
During the hearing, Ben-Dahan called for the committee to be entirely abolished and to allow all conversion applicants, including non-Israeli nationals, to begin the conversion process, and then to allow the Interior Ministry to subsequently be given the authority to decide whether or not the convert may gain Israeli citizenship.
He said that 90 percent of complaints about the conversion authority are related to the small number of cases dealt with by the Exceptions Committee, calling this situation “abnormal and unreasonable.”
Ben-Dahan, who served as the deputy minister for religious services in the last government, claimed that a ruling of the High Court of Justice determined that Jewish converts who undergo conversion in Israel cannot be eligible for citizenship under the right of return.
Smotrich argued with Ben-Dahan, saying that this approach would lead to a campaign for such converts to be automatically granted citizenship, and said instead that the committee should continue to operate as it has done, but should simply be transferred to the Interior Ministry.
ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber argued against both suggestions, saying that he did not believe that any High Court ruling negated the right of a non-Israeli national who converted in Israel to citizenship, while decrying the heavy-handed approach of the Exceptions Committee itself.
Farber said that, instead, the preconditions set by the committee should be changed – specifically the requirement that a non-Jewish spouse of an Israeli citizen wait 18 months before being able to apply to the committee for acceptance to the state conversion course.
During the hearing, head of the conversion authority Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz noted that almost 50 percent of applicants to the Exceptions Committee in 2014 were foreign workers, illegal residents, Palestinians or people who entered Israel illegally.
Farber said he agreed that such people should not be accepted by the Exceptions Committee, but said that was not a reason to create anguish and unnecessary frustration for people who truly want to convert.
He also called for an end to the Exceptions Committee’s demand that a conversion candidate it has already accepted come before it once again in order to gain permission to appear before a rabbinical court for a final conversion hearing.