The conversion bill anomalies

In a modern democracy, should there really be a law on what constitutes a legally acceptable religious conversion?

Lieberman talks to press (photo credit: Pool/Haaretz, Tal Cohen)
Lieberman talks to press
(photo credit: Pool/Haaretz, Tal Cohen)
From any angle that one looks at the military conversion bill, introduced in the Knesset by Israel Beiteinu, and passed last Wednesday on preliminary reading, one confronts an anomaly.
The first concerns the fact that in a modern democracy, it is felt that there is a need for a law on what constitutes a legally acceptable religious conversion. Why this came about is simpler to explain than to suggest how one gets out of the entanglement.
When the founding fathers of this country declared that it was to be a “Jewish state” almost everyone had in mind a state to which all Jews could immigrate freely and receive automatic citizenship, not a halachic one. However, very quickly this led to the question of “who is a Jew,” which was settled in the Law of Return by defining a Jew as someone with at least one Jewish grandparent or who has converted to Judaism. (Halacha, of course, defines a Jew as one born to a Jewish mother or who has converted.)
But then another problem emerged: “Who has the right to perform conversions,” to which the semi-formal answer given was an Orthodox Rabbi – certainly not a satisfactory answer in the eyes of Conservative and Reform Jews, but there was little they could do to change, due to their numerical weakness in the country.
Now even the statement that conversions can be performed by Orthodox rabbis has been questioned. The conversions performed by the IDF rabbinate are performed by Orthodox Rabbis, but their validity is being questioned by the haredi establishment, which claims they are too lenient, and therefore invalid.
If anyone thinks that the problem will finally be resolved once the new bill is passed, disappointment will surely follow. The bill seeks to give IDF conversions independence from the Chief Rabbinate by bestowing power on the IDF chief rabbi to be the final signatory on military conversions. This is a religious issue, which should be dealt with on the purely religious level. There needs to be a separation between religion and state, not in terms of the religious and national identity of the majority of the state’s citizens, but in terms of religious practices.
THE SECOND anomaly is the fact that a political party, a member of the coalition, feels that the only way it can realize its platform is through a private member’s bill.
All governments since 1948 have been coalition governments. As a consequence of the proportional electoral system, there has never been a single party with a majority in the Knesset. While coalition governments have nearly always suffered from inherent incoherence, at least in the past the parties forming the coalitions were strong enough to determine the main outline of the government’s policy.
This is no longer so. There are few subjects regarding which Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his party call the shots, or even agree among themselves on the policy.
Add to this the fact that there is no single coalition agreement to which all the members of the coalition are bound, but rather separate agreements between the leading party and each of the coalition members – agreements that do not necessarily tally with each other – and you end up with the current situation.
In this case, Israel Beiteinu is determined to realize not only part of its platform, which constitutes part of its coalition agreement with Netanyahu, but what it wishes to do contradicts the prime minister’s agreements with two of his other partners – Shas and United Torah Judaism. This has left Israel Beiteinu with only two options: let down its voters, or try to bypass the government by means of a private member’s bill.
There are numerous parliamentary democracies with coalition governments. However, there is no other parliamentary democracy in which the coalition governments are so incoherent, or in which members of the coalition must resort to private member’s legislation.
What is urgently needed is a change in the political culture. But only a change in the system of government to a presidential system, and/or a change in the electoral system to one that is constituency based, partially or in whole, is likely to change the rules of the game. Unfortunately, past experiences teach us that this is unlikely.
As to the bill itself, the likelihood that it will actually go through all the enactment stages in the Knesset is slim. While around half the legislation enacted originates from private member’s bills rather than government bills (again, a unique phenomenon among parliamentary democracies), the percentage that go beyond preliminary reading is extremely small. Even if a miracle occurs and the bill becomes law, the subject of conversions to Judaism in the Jewish state will still remain largely unresolved.
The writer, a former Jerusalem Post columnist, was a Knesset employee for the past 16 years.