Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders here are cautiously bracing for a Knesset debate on a bill in Israel designed to increase the number of conversions to Judaism.
“The concern is that once the bill goes to the Knesset, the sponsor loses control of it,” said Rabbi Julie Shonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “It could then undergo dramatic changes that could have a profound and deleterious affect on the hard-won gains the Conservative and Reform movements have achieved in decades of court battles.”
The bill, sponsored by Elazar Stern of the Hatnua Party chaired by Tzipi Livni, has already passed one reading in the Knesset. The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, which in March also approved it, had to take a second vote Monday after 38 amendments were proposed by the opposition. All were defeated and the bill was approved by a vote of 6-to-5.
The bill would expand the number of rabbis permitted to oversee conversions. Currently, there are only four conversion courts in Israel overseen by 33 rabbis. The bill would permit local state-employed Orthodox rabbis in towns, rural regions and municipalities to create their own conversion courts. The move could add as many as 30 new conversion courts.
There are said to be as many as 350,000 Russian immigrants who could potentially benefit from the conversion bill. Conversion reform is reportedly supported by an overwhelmingly majority of Israelis.
Many of the would-be newly empowered rabbis are seen as “more lenient than those who serve as city rabbis,” pointed out Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi who is president and CEO of the Israel-based advocacy group Hiddush-For Freedom of Religion and Equality.
“The bill as it stands is deemed to be a major threat to the exclusivity of the Chief Rabbinate and the rigidity of the chief rabbinate,” he said. “It was coordinated with the Reform and Conservative movements to ensure that it would not be interpreted as curtailing the recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel.”
Rabbi Shonfeld said such non-Orthodox conversions performed outside of Israel are “not recognized as Jewish for religious purposes in the State of Israel but are recognized for citizenship purposes under the Law of Return,” which grants automatic citizenship to all Jews.
The bill faces strong opposition from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party, the Jewish Home party headed by Naftali Bennett, fervently Orthodox parties, and Israel’s two chief rabbis.
After it passed its first reading in the Knesset earlier this year, a compromise was reached with Stern in which he agreed to allow the cabinet to accomplish by resolution what the bill aimed to do through legislation. But after Netanyahu announced last week that he no longer supported the resolution, the bill was reactivated.
Rabbi Regev said the prime minister’s action was purely political because he “realizes he can’t rely on his current coalition” partners when the next election is held as early as next year.
Political observers note that in positioning himself for elections, the prime minister hopes to gain support from religious parties who oppose liberalizing conversions.
But with Monday’s committee approval of the bill, Rabbi Regev said there is again talk of handling this issue through a cabinet resolution, which the bill’s opponents see as “the lesser evil.”
“Legislative resolutions can fall or stand — there is no sustainability to them,” he explained, adding that it is more difficult to change a law.
In addition, Rabbi Regev said, the bill includes a provision that explicitly safeguards Israel’s current civil recognition of Conservative and Reform conversions — something the resolution would presumably not include.
Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, attended the committee vote and said later that it was uncertain whether this issue would be handled administratively.
“I don’t know that the prime minister wants to take it back,” he said. “The reason Stern might want it to go that way is that it still has to be read two more times in the Knesset, and many things could happen. And the one thing Stern is committed to is that Orthodox conversion be decentralized and that it become more of a relationship opportunity for those who want to convert with their local municipal chief rabbis.”
Silverman favors the conversion legislation as a “real opportunity for growing and enhancing the number of Orthodox conversions. … I see it as an evolution, not a revolution.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in a statement: “Along with our partner in Israel, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, we hope that the majority of the Knesset makes the decision to allow a conversion process that is fair and accessible to the majority of those who so desire a change in the law.”
The bill received support here also from The American Jewish Committee, which said it has warned repeatedly that the chief rabbinate’s monopoly over personal status issues, such as conversion, poses a threat to the democratic nature of Israel.
“Failure to revise the laws governing personal-status issues risks alienating American Jewry, especially younger Jews, which could weaken overall American Jewish support for Israel,” the organization said.
Rabbi Shonfeld echoed that sentiment, saying: “It remains a terrible liability to the unity of the Jewish people that there is no religious freedom for people in Israel. And that situation — even with this bill — remains far from resolved from the point of view that Conservative and Reform converts are not considered Jewish in Israel. The antagonism of those with extreme religious views in Israel towards more moderate forms of Judaism leaves us quite concerned.”
A similar statement came from Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, who while voicing support for the bill lamented that it “does not address the status of Reform or Conservative Judaism, neither of which has official recognition in Israel. We continue to support changes in Israeli law that would establish secular control over personal status issues and uphold the promise of Israel’s founding declaration, that it will ‘ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex’ and ‘will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.’”