The anti-conversion bill and the status quo

Despite being sponsored by the coalition, the bill is a gross violation of the coalition agreement which promised to support the status quo.

June 1, 2017 21:17
4 minute read.

Dozens of rabbis, yeshiva deans, and leaders from the haredi community, including Rabbi Shimon Baadani, a member of the Shas Council of Torah Sages, travelled to Radun and prayed first at the building which formerly housed the yeshiva of the Hafetz Haim, and then by his gravesite itself.. (photo credit: DIRSHU)


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Having just observed Shavuot – the holiday where we celebrate Ruth’s conversion into the Jewish people – there is once again tumult regarding conversion in Israel.

It is almost two years since the government rolled back conversion legislation that would have helped more than 364,000 immigrants or their children pursue conversion to Judaism, and just over a year since the Supreme Court forced the State of Israel to recognize private Orthodox conversions in Israel.

And yet, the coalition – in a gross violation of the status quo agreement – is considering giving the rabbinate the monopoly on conversation in Israel, something that will endanger the status of more than 400 Orthodox converts who have converted in the Orthodox Bet Din Giyur Kahalacha and thousands of others who have converted outside the Chief Rabbinate.

On May 10, 2017, the Interior Ministry floated a new government-sponsored bill on the issue of conversion. The bill fundamentally changes the legal status of conversion in Israel and de facto grants the Chief Rabbinate’s conversion courts a monopoly over conversion.

The bill will also prevent civil or religious recognition for independent conversions courts, of either Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. After waiting the required three weeks for the bill to be commented on, there is now a real likelihood for the bill to be brought up in the coming week. This would be a major setback for conversion in Israel and particularly, the 364,000 olim who are registered in the population registry as “lacking religion.”

The bill shouldn’t be moved forward for a number of other reasons as well. Despite being sponsored by the coalition, the bill is a gross violation of the coalition agreement which promised to support the status quo.

Article 1 of the bill states that: “The purpose of this law is to anchor the existence and principles of the state conversion system and to determine that a conversion performed in Israel will be recognized by law only if carried out through the state conversion system.”

The State conversion system was established on the basis of the Ne’eman Committee agreements of 1997. These agreements were based on mutual understanding between the different streams of Judaism that it is crucial to work together to find solutions for conversion in Israel.

These agreements were not anchored in legislation so not to define the “correct” or “exclusive” Jewish conversion.

This bill seeks to regulate and anchor the official entrance gates to Judaism in Israel as the Orthodox Rabbinate monopoly. This is a gross violation of the status quo, which enables anyone to perform a conversion and allows the issues of “authentic” conversions to by determined in the courts.

Moreover, this bill will prevent any future possible conversion solution to be put forward to ease the personal status quandary that hundreds of thousands of immigrants face. Article 3 of the bill states: “Conversion performed in Israel will be recognized for the purposes of the provisions of any law only if it is conducted by the state conversion system, and no legal validity will be given for conversions performed in Israel not by the state conversion system” Today, the Rabbinate’s conversion authority adopts a stringent policy regarding the acceptance of converts. The Supreme Court ruling determined that there should not be a centralized authority for all conversions.

The current situation allows independent conversion courts to receive civil recognition and possibly future religious recognition, if the Rabbinate changed its policy under a new leadership.

However, this law seeks to prevent future recognition of conversions, both for civil and religious purposes. Should, theoretically, the Rabbinate change hands and pursue a more pluralistic approach towards conversion then in the present state, other conversions could be recognized beyond those of the State apparatus. This bill would change the status quo by precluding such future action.

Finally, the bill is bad because it creates a retroactive legitimization of the illegal closed-doors policy. This is a gross example of engaging in an “end run” around the Supreme Court and their decision. The original decision recognized private conversions.

The new law would retroactively undo them.

Was the Jewish State founded to reject tens of thousands who have joined our people? There has never been a clear “status quo” regarding the recognition of independent Israeli conversions by the Interior Ministry.

Cases have been debated in the Supreme Court since 2005 (Reform and Conservative) and 2006 (Orthodox). The court’s decision, made more than a year ago, was that the Interior Ministry closed-door policy was illegal. Therefore, it cannot be argued that the status quo was based on an illegal act that was never enshrined in the law. This new bill seeks to create a new status quo, based on a religious monopoly, where it did not legally exist before.

If the bill goes to the Law Ministerial Committee, there is a good chance it will move forward. Now is the time to stop this bill – before thousands of converts become once again used as a football in the political game being fought in Israel. Members of Knesset from the coalition have a responsibility to their constituents, to the Jews of the diaspora and most importantly, to the future of Jewish Israel, to kill this bill before it’s too late.

The writer is the founder and director of ITIM and a founder of Giyur Kahalacha.

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