Over the last number of weeks, people with good intentions, and some with not such good intentions, have written and dealt extensively with the proposed Conversion Bill in Israel. I read what they are writing and wonder: do they really understand the Bill?
Following is an explanation, framed in a Question and Answer format.
What is the problem the bill purports to solve?
The supporters of the bill claim that it will solve the challenge of conversion of the immigrants from the Former Soviet Union (FSU), that it will make possible large scale conversion and will prevent the growing phenomenon of retroactive nullification of conversions on the grounds of lack of sufficient religious observance. Regretfully, the bill will neither solve the problem nor significantly reduce it. Out of the approximately one million new immigrants from the FSU that have come to Israel since 1989, about 400,000 are not halachically Jewish [spouses, children or grandchildren of Jews]. Already there are 90,000 children, born in Israel to these new immigrants, who not halachically Jewish, and their number increases at the rate of about 5,000 per year.
Currently in Israel, fewer than 2,000 new immigrants from the FSU convert annually, in all Batei Din [religious courts].
How do you know that the bill will not solve the problem?
The real problem, as everyone knows, is that this is a secular immigrant population. They already consider themselves "sociological Jews" and are not about to become religiously observant.
If Chief Rabbi Amar were to courageously declare that he would grant their conversion his halachic endorsement with the explicit acknowledgment of this fact, this could indeed be the beginning of a solution. However, not only does he not do that, but in the most recent draft of the bill, an additional requirement was added requiring the opposite – that conversions be done only in so far as they include the condition of acceptance of "the yoke of Torah and the commandments according to the Halacha". The Bill now authorizes the Chief Rabbis to revoke the authority to convert if this requirement is not adhered to. It explicitly states that conversions can be revoked retroactively if they were conducted on the basis of "misleading information." This is exactly the basis on which conversions are currently being retroactively revoked, sometimes many years after the conversion.
Even if Rabbi Amar would not be inclined to support revoking conversions after the fact, we need to remember that he finishes his term of office in 2014. Clearly, whoever follows him will be decided by the charedi rabbinate. Does anyone genuinely believe that he will be a liberal?
In 2007, MK Rotem submitted a simple bill to empower city, regional and moshav rabbis to establish conversion courts. Rotem backed away from this proposal, following charedi opposition. The current proposal speaks of city rabbis only, who will personally serve on the conversion court. (Some of those who wrote on the subject mistakenly assume that the bill empowers the city rabbis to delegate the authority to other rabbis, but this is not the case). Attempts to identify lenient city rabbis who would be willing to courageously stand against charedi pressure pointed to a maximum of ten such rabbis spread all over the country. The real number is probably smaller. Can we envision that these rabbis will free themselves from other rabbinic functions and convene with sufficient frequency so as to convert a significantly large number of converts? One needs to be extremely naïve to believe that.
Isn’t the bill simply preserving the current situation?
Definitely not. If this were the case, the charedi forces wouldn’t insist on including Article 1, dealing with the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, which has nothing to do with the Russian immigrants. The purpose is to expand the authority of the Chief Rabbinate.
Since the 1960s the Israeli Supreme Court has consistently ruled that in the area of "Who is a Jew," Halacha rules only in matters of personal status, marriage and divorce (so long as the Rabbinic Courts Jurisdiction Law is not changed). In civil matters, such as the right of return and population registry, civil/secular interpretation governs. From the mid-1980s, when the question of non-Orthodox conversions arose, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that Israel must recognize Reform and Conservative conversions in the civil arena, whether conducted overseas or in Israel.
The Court held that in civil matters there is no justification to empower the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate to supervise conversions or require its approval. The Court further criticized the State for repeatedly attempting to bring in the rule of the Chief Rabbinate through the back door. This is exactly what the Bill now attempts to do. If passed this bill will enable the government to deny recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions conducted in Israel, and it may attempt to challenge recognition of overseas conversions as well.
Does the problem stop at the Conversion Bill?
The real problem is that of marriage. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens, including many of the immigrants from the FSU, cannot marry in Israel. The issue of marriage is a question of core civil liberties, not merely that of a religious outlook.
This year the Chief Rabbinate announced more stringent requirements for proof of Jewish status when people wish to marry. It requires evidence of Jewish status four generations, back to the great-grandmother. Under the current system, as long as the Chief Rabbinate controls personal status, converts cannot count on the Batei Din not refusing to recognize their offspring as Jewish.
Consider the case of Yossi Fackenheim, the son of the late professor Emil Fackenheim who was converted at the age of two before an Orthodox Beit Din in Montreal, Canada. At the age of 29, he was told by the Jerusalem rabbinic court that he is not Jewish because he does not strictly observe the commandments. He and others like him will continue to have to travel overseas in order to be legally married. What about all Reform and Conservative converts? None of them can legally marry in Israel. Why should Diaspora Jewry remain silent when its members and rabbis are treated as second-class Jews who are not entitled to full recognition and full citizen’s rights?
The clear majority of Israelis support granting them equal recognition and favorably views their participation in this debate. Most Israelis hold that Israel’s government should take into consideration diaspora views on such matters as religion and state, as well as marriage and Who is a Jew.
To sum up, the proposed bill will not fulfill the aims it was meant to advance. It will not resolve the challenge of conversion for the new immigrants. It is aimed at expanding the control of the Chief Rabbinate over conversion in Israel and to hurt non-Orthodox Judaism.
Undoubtedly, a different approach is needed to address the challenge of conversion: to fulfill the promise of Israel’s Declaration of Independence for freedom of religion and conscience; to recognize equally and fully conversions of all the major streams in Judaism; to ensure that converts of all streams (and new immigrants who have not converted) will be able to legally marry in Israel.
Rabbi Uri Regev is president of Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel.