Con­ver­sion bill likely dead on ar­rival af­ter de­tails leaked

Haredi, Na­tional Reli­gious MKs op­pose

Jerusalem Post - - FRONT PAGE - • By JEREMY SHARON

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.

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 non­state 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 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. •

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