New conversion bill likely to be nixed as factions come out in opposition

Long-awaited draft legislation on Jewish conversion which is set to be presented to the prime minister in the next few days appears to be doomed to fail, as shortly after details were leaked to the press both United Torah Judaism and Bayit Yehudi lawmakers said they oppose it.

The draft bill proposed by former Likud government minister Moshe Nissim and obtained by The Jerusalem Post would remove conversion from the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate and have the state formally recognize progressive Jewish converts from abroad.

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It would, however, create a state Orthodox monopoly over conversion, prevent full state recognition of progressive Jewish conversions, and at the same time greatly damage an independent Orthodox conversion program designed to prevent Jewish intermarriage in the Jewish state.

At present, the chief rabbi serving as president of the Supreme Rabbinical Court must sign off on every conversion carried out by the current Conversion Authority in order for each candidate to complete his or her conversion.

Under the terms of the proposed law, however, the head of the new conversion authority would be empowered to approve conversions without the input of the chief rabbi.

The head of the authority would be appointed by the prime minister, in consultation with the chief rabbi.

Rabbinical judges on the various district conversion courts would be chosen by a committee that, although including the chief rabbis, would not give them a veto and would also possibly include non-Orthodox representatives.

Municipal chief rabbis would also be empowered to serve on the conversion courts, as has been demanded by some National Religious conversion activists, although these courts would operate only within the framework of the national conversion authority and their independence would be limited.

The bill says explicitly that conversions in the state authority will be done in accordance with Orthodox Jewish law, that only conversions performed through the state authority would be legally recognized, and that any other conversions would have no legal relevance.

Another clause states, however, that the right of non-state converts to register in the Interior Ministry as Jewish will not be revoked. This is one of the key rights won by progressive Jewish movements in Israel.

And for the first time, the state would formally recognize in legislation the validity of Reform and Conservative conversion performed abroad and such converts’ eligibility for citizenship under the Law of Return.

Until now, these conversions have been recognized only by dint of a 2002 Supreme Court ruling; the new law would guarantee those rights by law.

BECAUSE OF some of the far-reaching compromises in the bill, it has already generated clear opposition from haredi and conservative National Religious lawmakers.

Bayit Yehudi MKs Uri Ariel and Bezalel Smotrich said the law, if passed, would “tear the Jewish people apart and severely harm the Jewish identity of the country,” describing the legislation as no less than “the worst bill submitted in the last five years which would totally break open the field of conversion.”

At the same time, sources close to the UTJ leadership said the party was also opposed to the legislation, while UTJ MK Yakov Asher told the Post earlier this week that the party was against the terms of the bill.

A spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate declined to comment.

Rabbi Seth Farber, one of the founders of the Giyur Ka’halacha independent Orthodox rabbinical court for conversion, which has converted 600 people in the last few years, said he also opposed the bill, for the opposite reason: that it would centralize conversion in Israel.

Farber said that the successes of Giyur Ka’halacha in increasing the rate of conversions among citizens from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to Jewish law would be halted in its tracks by the new bill.

“When there is finally positive momentum and the number of converts is increasing, it is unnecessary to advance a law that will slow down and virtually stop this momentum,” he said.

“Though there are some positive aspects of the bill, when all is said and done we need to solve the conversion crisis, not add unnecessary bureaucracy and create a [conversion] monopoly.”

Farber also noted that the input of the chief rabbi regarding the appointment of the head of the conversion authority would strongly affect the winning candidate, and the nature and approach of the authority itself.

The progressive Jewish leaders cautiously welcomed the bill, however.

Dr. Yizhar Hess, head of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, went as far as saying that the bill was “revolutionary to a not insignificant extent,” since it would take conversion away from the Chief Rabbinate and gives formal state recognition to progressive Jewish converts abroad for the first time ever and to their right to citizenship under the Law of Return.

He said, however, that the law would continue the Orthodox monopoly and thus further humiliate non-Orthodox Jews.

Director of the Reform Movement in Israel Rabbi Gilad Kariv also welcomed “promising parts of the recommendations,” but said it was too early to say if the movement would support the bill, and called on the government to adopt a position first.

Kariv also said that the Reform and Masorti movements would have to decide whether or not to unfreeze their a combustible High Court petition for which a decision is pending, which could grant even greater state recognition of non-Orthodox conversions than is currently the case.

It is this very petition – and the fear of the haredi parties that the court will rule in favor of the petitioners – that led to the crisis in June over conversion legislation and ultimately to Nissim’s proposed bill.

Kariv said the Reform and Masorti movements would have to weigh whether or not to “fight the final mile” for the increased state recognition of their conversions, or to support the current bill which guarantees the “hard-won rights” they have obtained thus far.

Noted legal scholar and president of the Academic Center for Law and Science Prof. Aviad Hacohen, who has been deeply involved in the conversion conundrum for many years, said Nissim had done “holy work” which was “deep and important.”

Hacohen said that the fact that no one was satisfied with the bill proved it was fair and balanced, but expressed skepticism that it would be politically viable.

“The time has come to rise above petty considerations and to adopt inclusive policies toward converts, as is befitting for a state whose values are Jewish and democratic,” he said.