During the Knesset recess over the summer, Artem Dolgopyat vaulted himself into national stardom and eternal glory by winning a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics for the Jewish state in the discipline of artistic gymnastics.
But it is not just Dolgopyat’s sporting achievement that drew interest. There was also his personal background as an immigrant to Israel under the Law of Return who is the son of a Jewish father but not himself Jewish, according to Halacha, since his mother is not Jewish.
There are currently some 400,000 Israeli citizens like Dolgopyat who made aliyah from the former Soviet Union, or are the children of such immigrants, who are integrated into Jewish society in Israel but are not technically Jewish.
Elements of the religious-Zionist community and leadership have long worried that this phenomenon would eventually lead to intermarriage in Israel between Jews and these descendants of Jews, and in 2018, there were indeed more than 2,400 such couples who wed in civil ceremonies outside of Israel.
In the new winter session of the Knesset, Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana, who is himself from the religious-Zionist community, will introduce legislation that will seek to tackle this most sensitive of issues, which has challenged the Jewish state for decades.
Kahana has already begun a public-relations campaign on social media and in the press to advocate this legislation. But he will need all his powers of persuasion and all his reserves of determination and resilience to get such a law passed.
This is because Jewish conversion is one of the most sensitive and combustible personal issues that the State of Israel has to contend with, affecting the fundamental “Who is a Jew?” question and giving rise to competing claims from all the different Jewish denominations and subsectors of society.
The legislation Kahana is advancing will allow municipal chief rabbis to establish their own conversion courts, essentially decentralizing control over conversion from the Chief Rabbinate and significantly curtailing the influence of the chief rabbis over the process.
This would allow liberally inclined municipal chief rabbis to implement policies such as the conversion of minors and to utilize more lenient criteria for conversion in general, which the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) establishment vehemently opposes.
There is little internal opposition to the legislation in the coalition, but the reforms are bitterly opposed by the chief rabbis, the haredi rabbinic leadership and the haredi political parties on the grounds that the conversions will be too lenient and will not be conducted in accordance with Halacha, a well-placed source said Monday.
The legislation is likely to be introduced at the Knesset in the coming weeks, and advancement of the bill will accelerate after the budget is approved, assuming such an achievement is made.
Expect fierce denunciations from Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau over the unraveling of the Jewish people and Jewish identity in the Jewish state, as well as statements from haredi rabbis such as Rabbi Haim Kanievsky and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein with similar warnings.
Parts of the religious-Zionist rabbinic leadership will also oppose the legislation, although much of the opposition will be to the fact that the proposed law would weaken the central authority of the Chief Rabbinate and not necessarily against the essence of the proposals themselves, especially bearing in mind that municipal chief rabbis were able to conduct conversions into the 1990s.
Threats will also be made by rabbis from both the haredi and religious-Zionist sectors, including serving notice to municipal chief rabbis that they will not recognize conversions done by their fellow municipal chief rabbis and that the legislation will split the Jewish people in two.
Rabbinical pressure may be brought to bear against certain Yamina MKs, although this did not work when the coalition was being established.
In short, the conversion legislation the government intends to advance will give rise to one of the most explosive arguments over religious matters in the Jewish state to have been witnessed for several years.
As well as the conversion bill, the government will continue to advance its kashrut reforms within the legislation for the state budget and hopes to pass them within that framework.
These reforms, like the conversion legislation, seek to decentralize the Chief Rabbinate’s control over a vital religious service, namely, the kashrut supervision market.
The legislation would essentially remove the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over the market and instead turn it into a regulator of independent kashrut supervision organizations.
The proposals have already been widely denounced by the same haredi and conservative religious-Zionist rabbinic and political leaders who will oppose the conversion reforms. But such attacks have had little effect on the coalition, and the reforms will likely be approved with the budget.
Last, but certainly not least, movement is expected on the long-delayed Western Wall cabinet resolution of 2016 that would have created a government-recognized prayer section for progressive Jewish worship at the Western Wall, vastly upgraded the current site and given Reform and Conservative representatives a place on the new site’s governing committee.
Although the haredi parties initially agreed to this arrangement, internal pressure within the community led them to backtrack, and they forced former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to indefinitely suspend the agreement in 2017.
This created a severe crisis in relations between the Israeli government and the US Jewish leadership, and it soured relations with Netanyahu and his governments until the day he left office.
Critics of the agreement’s suspension argued at the time, and still do, that the failure to accommodate the needs of non-Orthodox Jews damages the values of Jewish peoplehood, and many senior ministers in the current government have promised to rectify this situation.
The current government has indicated in several ways that it intends to implement the Western Wall agreement, although possibly not every aspect of the original government resolution, with Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai the most vocal on the need to approve it.
A cabinet resolution on the Western Wall agreement would likely be brought to a vote in the current Knesset winter session after passage of the budget, two sources close to the government said Monday, although one of them added that there had been some internal opposition within the coalition to the deal.
The possibility exists that changes may be made to the wording of the resolution regarding membership of the governing committee, a senior government official said earlier this year.
The original text of the agreement stipulated that members of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism and the Masorti Movement (Conservative Judaism in Israel) would be members of the governing committee. But some members of the government are uncomfortable with giving non-Orthodox officials formal positions on statutory bodies.
Different options were being examined to work around this issue, including stipulating in the resolution that the chairman of the Jewish Agency would appoint members to the committee on the assumption that the chairman would appoint non-Orthodox officials without explicitly stating so, the senior official said.
According to one source, the Western Wall agreement could be brought to the cabinet for a vote in early December.