Workers in the Conversion Authority, the government body responsible for converting immigrants, are planning to strike in protest against what they call the "unbearable working environment" created by a protracted power struggle between rabbis and rabbinic judges. The Conversion Authority's administrative employees - not including rabbinic judges - recently met and agreed to declare a labor dispute that would paralyze operations, thus effectively bringing to a halt all conversions.
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In the coming week, Ya'acov Zeltzer, chairman of the Histadrut Workers' Union, which organizes employees of the religious services unit in the Prime Minister's Office, plans to present a request to the Histadrut's Committee for Coordination and Operations to authorize the strike.
At the meeting, workers expressed a feeling of "total despair" resulting from the worsened working relations between various rabbinic groups within the authority. Some of the workers complained that they were receiving contradictory orders, while others complained of a total lack of the trust necessary for the authority to function properly.
This is the latest chapter in an ongoing story of infighting that has hurt the authority's ability to convert thousands of immigrants from the FSU who are entitled to Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return but who are not considered Jewish according to halacha (Orthodox Jewish law.)
Since there is no separation between religion and state, these immigrants cannot get married in Israel. Rather, they must go abroad to marry in a civil ceremony. Also, they represent a threat to Jewish continuity, since a child born to a non-Jewish woman is not considered Jewish according to halacha.
The Conversion Authority employees' decision to strike comes as the Jewish Agency's five-day annual Assembly and Board of Governors meets in Jerusalem. On Thursday, the agency's Unity of the Jewish People Committee is slated to deal exclusively with the issue of conversions.
The agency is pushing for the establishment of alternative conversion courts headed by more lenient Orthodox rabbis that would fill in for the Conversion Authority. The agency's proposal might gain momentum as a result of the recent developments in the authority.
There are two vying camps within the authority. In one camp is Rabbi Eliyahu Maimon, administrative head of the authority, who enjoys the backing of most of the authority's 25 rabbinic judges who preside in the rabbinic courts responsible for conversions. He has the backing of Zeltzer.
In the other camp is Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Rabbi Haim Druckman, the senior rabbinic authority in the authority.
Rabbi Moshe Klein, Deputy Head of the authority, said in response that he knew nothing about the planned strike.
Amar and Druckman have tried repeatedly to transfer Maimon from his position. However, Zeltzer has defended Maimon before Civil Service Commissioner Shmuel Hollander, who has rejected the transfer requests.
Just a week ago, Amar attempted once again to have Maimon removed. Histadrut Rabbi Zion Bar-Shalom, a grandson of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, arranged a meeting between Amar and the Chairman of the Histadrut's Civil Service Union, Ariel Ya'acobi, during which Amar tried to convince Ya'acobi to bypass Zeltzer. But Ya'acobi refused.
"It just goes to show how fed up Amar is with Maimon," said a source intimately familiar with the dispute. "If a man of his stature is willing to get involved personally with the transfer of Maimon it proves one thing: conversions are an issue that burns in the rabbi's bones."
The source, who is partial to Amar, said that the chief rabbi and Druckman could not work with Maimon because they lacked any trust in him.
As an example of the complete breakdown of trust between Maimon and Druckman, the source said that Maimon had publicly attacked Druckman.
In a letter submitted to a committee headed by Absorption Ministry Director-General Erez Halfon that is planning to bring under one roof all stages of conversion, Maimon reportedly accused Druckman, his boss, of being negligent in his conversion authority duties.
Maimon also blocked an attempt by Amar to appoint 10 haredi rabbinic judges to the conversion courts, arguing that Amar had ulterior motives for the appointments.
"Druckman and Amar cannot continue to work with a man who is so uncooperative and vindictive," said the source.
In response, sources close to Maimon said that his criticism of Druckman and Amar was strictly professional.
"Druckman simply does not devote enough time to the issue of conversions," said the source. "He splits his time between his yeshiva and his duties as chairman of Bnei Akiva's yeshiva high schools."
The pro-Maimon source added that Amar's request to appoint additional judges had been rejected by the Civil Service Commission because there were no minimum requirements, such as rabbinic ordination, set for candidates.
Both sides agree that the present situation cannot continue.
"I have no doubt that at the end of the day, the people who are suffering most from all the infighting are the converts," said one source. "I am surprised that the workers did not come to me or to Druckman before deciding on a labor dispute."