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In a move liable to reignite controversy over "Who is a Jew?", Shas and United Torah Judaism are preparing a bill that would give the Chief Rabbinate sole jurisdiction over conversions in Israel.
De facto, the only conversions performed in Israel that are recognized by the state for citizenship purposes are Orthodox ones. However, this practice is not anchored in law.
In 1995, the High Court of Justice rejected the state's claim that a law dating back to the British Mandate gave the Chief Rabbinate sole authority over conversions as "head of the Jewish community" (Rosh Edah) in Palestine.
The court said instead that in the modern State of Israel there was no unified Jewish community. Rather, the Chief Rabbinate represented only the Orthodox segment of Israeli Jewry.
The new push to pass legislation that gives Orthodoxy a monopoly over conversions comes after the High Court ruled last week that non-Orthodox institutes that train potential converts are entitled to state funds like Orthodox institutes. This sparked fear among haredi and Orthodox politicians and rabbis that in a pending Supreme Court decision non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel would be recognized as well.
Shas faction head MK Avraham Michaeli, who is drafting the legislation, said Wednesday that he had received broad support among lawmakers of many parties for the measure, though he did not name MKs.
"There are parties both in the coalition and in the opposition, including MKs from Kadima, who support the bill," Michaeli said in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post.
"The final draft of the bill has not yet been finalized, but the idea is to make sure that responsibility for conversions in Israel will be given only to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel."
Knesset Law Committee Chairman David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu) said in response that his party would be willing to support Shas's bill on condition that it was included within the framework of a larger conversion reform package.
"In our coalition agreement with the Likud, we have a list of demands regarding conversions," Rotem said.
"We want city rabbis to be allowed to perform conversions. We also want the entire State of Israel to be considered one jurisdiction for conversions so that any rabbi authorized to perform conversions will be able to do so anywhere in Israel."
Rotem said that increasing the pool of rabbis allowed to perform conversions would give those with a more lenient approach the opportunity to have an impact. This would increase the number of conversions performed.
"If Shas supports these demands, we would be willing to give Orthodoxy a monopoly over conversions performed in Israel," he said.
Asked if he was concerned that Shas's bill might harm relations with Diaspora Jews, the majority of whom are not Orthodox, Rotem said that "we have to take that into consideration."
Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin said he was "praying for the day when Orthodox rabbis with a lenient 'Beit Hillel' approach to conversions" would be allowed to perform them.
"This would save the day and there would be no need for any other [non-Orthodox] kind of conversion," said Riskin. "Generally, I am very much in favor of pluralism. But in the area of conversions it is crucially important that we remain one nation that can all marry each other."
There are about 300,000 Israelis from the former Soviet Union who received automatic citizenship under the Law of Return but are not Jews according to Orthodox criteria.
The vast majority of these immigrants and their offspring identify as Jews, serve in the army, are strongly patriotic and have fully integrated into society.
But since they have no official religious definition - they are not considered Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate and they are not Christians - they cannot marry in Israel. They feel alienated at religious lifecycle events such as brit mila, bar and bat mitzva and funerals.
On average only about 2,000 are converted a year, half by the National Conversion Authority and half by Rabbinate courts in the IDF that convert non-Jewish soldiers.
However, critics say this is just a tiny fraction of what the rabbinic courts should be converting since between 6,000 and 8,000 non-Jewish babies are born every year to these FSU immigrants and their offspring.
As time progresses, say the critics, it will be increasingly difficult to differentiate between Jews and non-Jews.
"We will have a situation where our children and grandchildren will be endangered by assimilation - inside Israel," said Prof. Yedidia Stern of the Israel Democracy Center.
He recently published a book titled Hagiyur Be're'i Hadorot (Conversion Throughout the Generations), as part of Yediot Aharonot's Am Hasefer series. It presents more than 90 halachic responsa given in different periods in various societies. The book shows that sociological developments throughout the ages have influenced the way conversions are performed.
"My nightmare is that within a generation we will be unable to agree on who is a Jew, and for the first time in Jewish history religion will cease to be a unifying factor.
"That has major ramifications for our ability to maintain cohesiveness and collective purpose in the face of our many national challenges," Stern said.
Riskin said that rabbis responsible for conversions were not doing their job.
"There is a stranglehold on conversions with Rabbinate courts nullifying conversions and applying very strict criteria. This dampens prospective converts' desire to convert or prevents them from succeeding once they begin the conversion process. My position is to welcome into Judaism every gentile who arrived here under the Law of Return.
"I am going to do everything in my power to try to work together with the religious establishment," added Riskin, who is also chancellor of the Or Torah Stone Institutions.
"But if that does not happen there will be no recourse but to establish an independent rabbinical court for conversions that can deal with this national endeavor."
Shas chairman Eli Yishai said that it was impossible to allow Reform Jews "to convert Palestinians and foreign workers."
"Because of Reform Jews, we lost thousands of Jewish souls," Yishai said. "But someone who wants to convert according to Halacha is welcomed with open arms."
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform Movement in Israel, said in response that the Orthodox establishment would not succeed in stopping the Reform Movement.
"The majority of Israelis and the majority of Jews in the Diaspora are fed up with the Orthodox monopoly. Their attempts are pathetic. We are already doing hundreds of conversions a year and we intend to continue that perform conversions as part of our national obligation. We hope to reach thousands of immigrants who will end their trek to Judaism with us," Kariv said.
Yishai said Shas was in favor of being as lenient as possible with conversions but only within Orthodox criteria.
"The Rishon Lezion [Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar] supports leniencies. We want to avoid a situation in which there is assimilation and intermarriage inside Israel."
Asked if he would support allowing city rabbis to perform conversions, Yishai said Shas would "honor the coalition agreement."
The coalition agreement signed between Israel Beiteinu and the Likud clearly stipulates that a change will be made in the law to enable city rabbis to perform conversions.
Amar refused to speak to the Post. However, a source close to the Chief Rabbinate predicted that Amar, who is responsible for conversions, would not be willing to allow all city rabbis to perform conversions.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.*