About a month ago, Israel’s religious establishment roiled rabbis here with news that it was creating a worldwide database that would minutely scrutinize Jews’ marriages and conversions.

While the Ministry of Religious Affairs said the information gathering would expedite marriage registration in Israel, leading rabbis in New York feared the database would delegitimize many Jews and could lead to an unacceptable breach of privacy.

Now, in the latest skirmish in the bitter “Who is a Jew?” battle, a Knesset bill getting its first reading this week threatens to further drive a wedge between Israel’s Orthodox religious establishment and the non-Orthodox denominations that predominate outside of Israel, according to experts in the United States and Israel. It also poses a potential threat to non-charedi elements of the Orthodox community in Israel and the U.S.

The legislation, sponsored by charedi parties in Israel’s parliament, seeks to limit the scope of conversions conducted in Israel and would effectively delegitimize conversions done under non-charedi auspices.   

The bill, introduced by the Interior Ministry, would recognize only conversions performed under its own institutions, the State Conversion Authority under the guidance of the Chief Rabbinate. The Interior Ministry and the Chief Rabbinate, which in the early decades of Israel were largely led by people affiliated with the country’s Religious Zionist movement (the Israeli equivalent of Modern Orthodox), have in recent years become increasingly charedi (commonly called “ultra-Orthodox”).

The stated purpose of the new legislation, which would give the Chief Rabbinate exclusive control of conversions, is to restore the right of the state to control access to citizenship, following a Supreme Court ruling in March 2016 that non-Israelis who convert in private Orthodox rabbinical courts in Israel should be eligible for citizenship under the terms of the Law of Return.

The draft bill proposes to reject all conversions done in Israel by Reform and Conservative rabbis, and by privately run rabbinic courts.

View of the assembly hall of the Knesset, during the opening of the winter session, October 31, 2016. JTA

The Jewish Religious Equality Coalition (J-REC), a three-year-old non-denominational organization created by the American Jewish Committee, said in a statement that it “strongly opposes” the proposed bill, which “signals that Israel is unsupportive of Reform and Conservative/Masorti Jews worldwide and many Orthodox conversion practices as well.”

“Passage of this discriminatory bill would be another major step backwards in securing Jewish religious equality in the Jewish state.”

“Passage of this discriminatory bill would be another major step backwards in securing Jewish religious equality in the Jewish state,” said J-REC Chair Dov Zakheim. “Israel needs additional measures to ensure that all expressions of Judaism, not just those acceptable to the Chief Rabbinate, are treated with dignity and respect, and that the path towards Israeli citizenship is open to those who convert outside of the Chief Rabbinate.”

Steven Bayme, director of the contemporary Jewish life department of the AJC, said that “90 percent [of American Jewry] will regard this as a direct affront,” and seen as a message that “your Judaism is not recognized by the State of Israel.”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, CEO of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said RA “legal experts” are “still parsing” the bill’s language to determine how it might affect Conservative conversions, but added that “there is no question” that the status of “Masorti converts and Masorti conversions” will be in doubt. “It effectively shuts out all conversions not done under the rabbanut [Chief Rabbinate].”

“At a time when the Israeli government has tried hard to build a greater sense of pluralism and religious freedom, it conveys [a message] that Israel is … tone deaf or uncaring … unready or unwilling to address the key questions of Jewish unity worldwide.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said, “the distress” of Reform leaders around the U.S. “is great.”

“The impact of this [bill] is not symbolic — it’s actual,” he said, adding that the legislation is “one of the most dangerous and disruptive” bills “to come before the Knesset in a long time.”

“This moves the needle all the way to ultra-Orthodoxy,” he said. “At a time when the Israeli government has tried hard to build a greater sense of pluralism and religious freedom, it conveys [a message] that Israel is … tone deaf or uncaring … unready or unwilling to address the key questions of Jewish unity worldwide.”

The Jewish Week also asked representatives of the Rabbinical Council of America, and the Religious Zionists of America, for comment on the legislation, but did not get a response by early this week. Agudath Israel of America declined to comment.

If passed by the Knesset, the bill would “pose an existential threat to the State of Israel,” leading many potential citizens of the country — especially emigres from the former Soviet Union — to reconsider their plans to settle in Israel or lead them to leave Israel, said Rabbi Seth Farber.

Rabbinical Assembly’s Rabbi Julie Schonfeld says the proposed bill “shuts out all conversions not done under the [Chief Rabbinate.”
“At the very least, this affects thousands of people,” says convert advocate Rabbi Seth Farber.

“At the very least, this affects thousands of people,” said Rabbi Farber, who grew up in the U.S., and is a co-founder, along with Rabbis Shlomo Riskin, David Stav and Professor Benny Ish Shalom, of Giyur Kahalacha, the largest private Orthodox conversion court in Israel.

The bill would “solidify” the Chief Rabbinate’s “monopoly … on Jewish life in Israel” and would in effect reject conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis as well as many overseas rabbis, said Rabbi Farber, who is also the founder of ITIM, an organization that helps Israelis navigate the country’s religious bureaucracy.

ITIM supported the 2016 legislation, which allowed for the full integration into Israeli life of citizens from the former Soviet Union who convert through private Orthodox courts.

“It signifies that the State of Israel is interested in letting the ultra-Orthodox control Jewish life.”

The current proposed legislation would not recognize conversions carried out by Giyur Kahalacha, leaving in doubt the Jewish status of hundreds of men and women who have already converted under the group’s aegis or have begun the conversion process, and would likely limit recognition of conversions done by Orthodox rabbis outside of Israel.

“It signifies that the State of Israel is interested in letting the ultra-Orthodox control Jewish life,” Rabbi Farber said in a phone interview from Israel. He said he is “strongly opposed … as a matter of principle” to the “end-run” legislation, because it would circumvent the high court’s 2016 ruling. He is also opposed because he sees the bill as clearly designed to disenfranchise his organization and would mean “a significant break from the status quo,” which traditionally recognized conversions performed by a wide variety of Orthodox rabbis in Israel, and retroactively by non-Orthodox ones outside of Israel.

Reform and Conservative conversions conducted in Israel are already recognized by the Interior Ministry for the purposes of registration as Jewish in the Population and Immigration Authority, but not yet for the purpose of obtaining Israeli citizenship.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unlikely to oppose the legislation because charedi parties represent a crucial part of his government’s coalition, Rabbi Farber said. “That is why I’m very concerned.”

The legislation, if passed, he said, will force people in Israel who are contemplating a conversion to Judaism “to go to the rabbinate or not convert at all.”