The government on Sunday repealed the conversion reform law passed just seven months ago, marking a significant victory for the haredi political parties and religious establishment against the decentralization efforts of moderate national-religious groups and advocates of increased conversion for non-Jewish Israelis from the former Soviet Union.
The so-called Conversion Law, spearheaded by then-Hatnua MK Elazar Stern with the backing of moderate national- religious organizations, was designed to make the conversion system more accessible, principally by allowing Orthodox rabbis with a more lenient approach to establish their own conversion courts.
The purpose was to increase conversion rates among the immigrant population from the former Soviet Union (FSU), including their Israeli-born children. Some 330,000 people among this community are not considered Jewish according to Halacha (Jewish law), and thus cannot marry Jews in Israel.
The law was adopted by the previous cabinet last November as a government order.
Such laws can be overturned simply by holding a new cabinet vote.
The measures were bitterly opposed by chief rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, and by the haredi political parties United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and Shas. They argued that such conversions would not be carried out in accordance with Halacha. The issue was so important to the haredi parties that reversing the reform was a specific clause in the coalition agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and UTJ.
In accordance with the new government order, the new law, at least in theory, still allows municipal chief rabbis to establish their own conversion courts. However, they will need the approval of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate to do so. The council will be tasked with appointing two additional rabbinical judges to serve on a new rabbinical court being established for conversions.
Given that the two chief rabbis and the overwhelming majority of the 16-member Council of the Chief Rabbinate oppose the idea of allowing municipal chief rabbis to establish conversion courts – and oppose in particular the ideological backers of the law, rabbis David Stav and Shlomo Riskin – it is highly unlikely that the intended purpose of the law will be realized.
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky on Sunday strongly criticized the law’s repeal and indicated that the organization would seek to establish an alternative to conversion in Israel, as it announced publicly last month.
Sharansky said the Jewish Agency “cannot accept the fact that a matter so vital to the future of the Jewish people and to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is subject entirely to the configuration of the coalition at any given time and to government decisions adopted and then canceled after each election cycle.” He added that it would “act through other means in order to preserve the State of Israel’s Jewish character and continue the historic process of ingathering the exiles.”
Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman, a long-standing proponent of conversion reform, strongly denounced the reversal. He said the country’s Jewish identity was being held captive by extremist haredi elements, and accused the government of betraying immigrants from the FSU by agreeing to the repeal.
“We’re talking here about a government that is totally controlled by the haredi parties and is making Israeli society once again captive to extremist elements who are making the lives of Israeli citizens more difficult,” Liberman said.
Israelis, he continued, “want to live in a state of tolerant and enlightened Judaism, and not in a benighted country that subjugates itself to the most extreme haredi elements.”
Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, both from Bayit Yehudi, voted against the measure in the cabinet. The party sought a more active role in matters of religion and state during coalition negotiations but was rebuffed, with the prime minister giving all power on the matter to the haredi parties.
Ahead of the vote, Bennett tweeted that he would oppose canceling the conversion reform, writing: “It is essential that we convert hundreds of thousands according to Halacha and in a welcoming way.
[Former justice minister] Tzipi [Livni] and I passed the decision, and it is unfortunate it is being canceled.”
Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, a member of the more religiously conservative Tekuma faction within Bayit Yehudi, skipped the vote. MK Bezalel Smotrich, the other Tekuma MK, tweeted that “canceling the conversion reform is good and will contribute to the status and trustworthiness of conversions.” Smotrich has evoked consternation within Bayit Yehudi by voting against the party’s positions on several occasions.
Bayit Yehudi Anglo Forum chairman Jeremy Saltan said that “Tekuma’s Smotrich is truly out of line here with his public statements. He is sitting on the seat that was supposed to go to [the late MK] Uri Orbach, who was a big part of the conversion reform.”
Saltan also noted that Bayit Yehudi had been the only party to vote against the repeal of the conversion law.
“It is very apparent from the vote that Likud and Kulanu do not care about religious-Zionist voters or religion and state issues,” he said.
Bayit Yehudi came in for the same criticism from Hiddush, a religious pluralism lobbying group, which said it was “saddened that Bayit Yehudi capitulated without condition to the haredi parties and sold conversion and the rabbinical courts to Shas,” adding that the national- religious party should not be a partner to such decisions.
Along with Stern, who left Hatnua to run with Yesh Atid in the March election but did not make it into the Knesset, Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie wrote a letter to Netanyahu and Attorney- General Yehuda Weinstein on Saturday night, lamenting that the vote would take place without any public discourse.
“The current decision is meant to roll back conversions and send it years backwards,” Lavie and Stern said in the letter.
“It reflects a withdrawal by the government from anything connected to encouraging the continuation of the blessed process that began in the last Knesset.”
Lavie said that harming converts harms Israel as a Jewish state by distancing people from the rabbinate and creating tens of thousands of situations in which people will not be able to get married.
“Unfortunately, they sold everything in the name of coalition agreements,” Lavie said of the Likud and other parties in the government. “Canceling the government decision to allow municipal rabbis to convert is the biggest conversion fraud in the history of the Jewish People.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) said the decision had been motivated by narrow, cynical political interests meant only to keep the prime minister in his seat.
“This seriously harms broad swaths of the population, including women, immigrants and those who want to be part of our nation and are rejected again and again,” he said. “Israelis want to live in a country of tolerant and enlightened Judaism, not a dark country that surrenders to the most extremist haredi elements.”
Dr. Shuki Friedman of the Israeli Democracy Institute’s Center for Nationality, Religion and State, said the vote was a mistake that excluded large population groups who saw themselves as part of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.
“Canceling the reform will reinforce the situation in which hundreds of thousands of citizens who see themselves as part of the Jewish people will not be able to join it in practicality.
We should convert those who want to be converted according to Halacha, but in a way that brings them closer to Judaism and allows a more dignified conversion process,” he stated.
Friedman added that the original reform should have been passed as a law, not a government order, so that any change would have required an in-depth public discussion in the Knesset.
Separately, a law proposed by Shas to outlaw independent kashrut supervision bodies was removed from the agenda of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which also convened on Sunday.
The Chief Rabbinate is currently recognized as the only authority entitled to grant a certificate of kashrut, although an independent Orthodox association called Hashgaha Pratit (private supervision) has challenged that exclusivity by issuing certificates stating that the restaurant or business in question has “supervision,” although without the words “kashrut” or “kosher.”
Attorney-General Weinstein recently issued an opinion stating that the practice was legal and consistent with the law.
The Chief Rabbinate and the haredi parties are vehemently against independent kashrut authorities, and Shas’s law is intended to close a loophole in the current law by banning restaurants and businesses from presenting any certificate or symbol that would in any way indicate it is licensed as kosher.
The Shas-sponsored law was withdrawn because it was worded in a way that would damage a reform proposed by the current coalition to lower the price of food. For that reason it drew opposition from Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), among others.
Economy Minister and Shas chairman Arye Deri tweeted that he would consult with the chief rabbis “to find a way to remove all obstacles in reducing the cost of food while protecting kashrut.”
UTJ MK Moshe Gafni has proposed that the law be worded to allow restaurants and businesses to say that they are under “private inspection,” without using the words “supervision,” “kashrut” or anything similar.
It is unclear if this formulation will be acceptable to Kulanu, especially to party MK Rachel Azaria, who has strongly supported Hashgaha Pratit since its inception.
Meanwhile, a Bayit Yehudi source said that even if the bill is approved for passage to the Knesset, the party could create difficulties during the legislative process if it is not formulated according to its liking.