Tensions mount in coalition over conversion legislation

The issue is important to Yisrael Beytenu and Yesh Atid, and MKs from those parties will now advance private members' bills next week.

 Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana attends a plenary session at the assembly hall of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem, July 26, 2021.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana attends a plenary session at the assembly hall of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem, July 26, 2021.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Disputes have arisen within the government over legislation for reforming the system for Jewish conversion, with two senior members of the coalition dissatisfied with Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana’s proposals and progress on the issue.

The issue is important to Yisrael Beytenu and Yesh Atid, and MKs from those parties will now advance private members' bills next week while discussions are held with Kahana.

Following these developments, Kahana himself published the outline of his proposals on Wednesday morning.

A component of the coalition agreement between all coalition parties is an appendix on religion and state legislation the coalition must pass, which includes passing a law to allow municipal chief rabbis to conduct conversions.

The goal of the legislation is to make conversion more accessible and welcoming, and to give municipal chief rabbis the ability to use leniencies in Jewish law to convert greater numbers of the large population of Israeli citizens who are of Jewish descent but not Jewish according to Jewish law, mostly from the former Soviet Union, so as to avert increasing assimilation.

PROTESTERS GATHER outside the Chief Rabbinate offices in Jerusalem, against the Rabbinate’s 2016 disqualification of American rabbis’ conversions (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)PROTESTERS GATHER outside the Chief Rabbinate offices in Jerusalem, against the Rabbinate’s 2016 disqualification of American rabbis’ conversions (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

The appendix states that a government bill must be introduced within 60 days of the establishment of the coalition, but that date has long passed.

Kahana has said he was busy guiding his kashrut reforms through the Knesset in the framework, although achievement was made nearly a month ago.

On Tuesday, Intelligence Minister Elazar Stern of Yesh Atid, who has sought to advance conversion reform ever since he entered the Knesset in 2013, and Yisrael Beytenu MK Yulia Malinovsky held a discussion with Kahana during which they expressed their dissatisfaction with the slow progress of the legislation and the details of his proposal as well.

Kahana’s proposals include forming a rabbinical committee after legislation is passed that will determine the parameters under which the conversion courts established by municipal chief rabbis will operate.

Stern and Malinovsky are both concerned that the ability of such conversion courts to utilize leniencies in Jewish law for conversion could be neutered by this committee.

In addition, Kahana’s legislation grants the chief rabbis and the Council of the Chief Rabbinate the power, under certain circumstances, to revoke the appointment of a rabbinical judge on the new conversion courts, something Stern and Malinovsky are deeply uneasy about, since this too could undermine the independence of the new courts.

Kahana’s office said on Wednesday that his proposals had been coordinated with Rabbi Haim Druckman, one of the most senior and respected rabbinical authorities of the religious-Zionist sector, something which is important to the minister due to the highly sensitive nature of Jewish conversion in Israel and the Jewish world.

During the conversation on Tuesday, it was agreed that Malinovsky and Yesh Atid MK Moshe Tur Paz would advance private members’ bills on conversion similar in content to the legislative proposals that appear in the coalition agreement appendix.

IT WAS AGREED that these bills will be approved in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation this coming Sunday and approved in their preliminary reading in the Knesset on Wednesday, in order to get the legislative process underway.

At the same time, Kahana will continue to prepare his legislation in cooperation with the coalition over the next few weeks in the hope that progress can be made on a mutually-agreed bill that can be advanced as government legislation.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Stern said he believed it was important to get the backing of senior religious-Zionist rabbis, but that the coalition could not wait too long to address the issue.

The minister noted that the 33rd government of Israel, from 2013 to 2015, passed a government resolution allowing municipal chief rabbis to conduct conversions based on legislation he had advanced almost into law, and that this resolution was swiftly repealed by the following government at the behest of the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Stern said he had been mistaken at the time not to insist on passing the legislation, for which there was a majority, and agreeing to implement the proposal by government resolution instead.

“I really call on the rabbis of the religious-Zionist community who understand the size of the challenge to see that any delay will cause further assimilation in Israel,” said Stern.

“No one will be completely satisfied, neither conservatives or liberals on either side. But there is no doubt that granting municipal chief rabbis the ability to conduct conversions, and abolishing geographical districts for conversion should have happened a long time ago."

“If this entire government was established only to pass conversion reform, it would have been worth it.”

Tani Frank, director of the Judaism and State Policy Center of the Hartman Institute and the Triguboff Institute, said Kahana’s proposals raised a question mark over the entire purpose of the legislation, since it “leaves in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate the ability to disqualify rabbinical judges and to determine the courts’ parameters which will gut the halachic independence of municipal chief rabbis and their ability to convert in accordance with their own positions.”

Senior United Torah Judaism MK Ya'acov Litzman denounced the legislation as well, but for being too liberal.

“The conversion reforms of the Minister Matan Kahana expose Jewish identity in the State of Israel to an existential threat of assimilation,” said Litzman.

“This is a dangerous and illegitimate proposal which contravenes Jewish law and will turn conversion in Israel into Conservative conversion, and will force those who observe the commandments to establish an alternative framework of ancestry records.”