Regev Responds

Shas-led Interior Ministry behind this latest assault on Israel's democracy

Conversion bill to reject all conversions outside of Israel's Rabbinate

A measure submitted earlier this month by the Interior Ministry led by Rabbi Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, is a blatant effort to circumvent a March 2016 Supreme Court ruling that allowed those undergoing private Orthodox conversions in Israel to become citizens under the Law of Return.

A conversion court in sessionA conversion court in session

Ministry Deri has repeatedly voiced his fierce opposition to granting any shred of state legitimacy to non-Orthodox Judaism, and the ultra-Orthodox political parties vowed to neutralize the Supreme Court’s decision at the time of its ruling.

The proposed bill is designed to change the legal situation in Israel, to block the path of the Reform and Conservative conversion courts that operate in Israel, and to strengthen the hand of Israel's Chief Rabbinate in its struggle against the independent Orthodox rabbinical courts, which have popped up in response to the stagnation of the Chief Rabbinate’s conversion process and its failure to meet the historical need to open wide gates for conversion, particularly for Israel’s new immigrants.

This proposal is nothing less than unacceptable and indecent, and we can only hope that the Prime Minister will come to his senses and announce his opposition to it. It flies in the face of Jewish tradition and Prime Minister Netanyahu's personal, public commitment to ensure that all Jews of all religious denominations feel at home in Israel. It aims to strengthen the hand of Interior Minister Deri's political and religious partner, Chief Rabbi Yosef, under whose portfolio conversions come.

As it turns out, the Government’s coalition agreement signed with the civil Yisrael Beiteinu political party, which represents Israel’s population of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, provides that no changes to Israeli law involving religion and state matters will be pursued by or supported by the government unless agreed to by all factions of the coalition. Therefore, Hiddush turned to Defense Minister Liberman, head of Yisrael Beiteinu, and Finance Minister Kahlon, head of the civil Kulanu party, who have both stood for religious inclusiveness and whose constituencies are overwhelming opposed to religious coercion, demanding that they put a stop to this offensive measure.

This proposal purports to turn the Ne'eman Committee's recommendations on conversion into law, but its basis is actually untrue. In truth, the committee's recommendations were never approved by the members of the committee, of which I was one, and they were rejected by the Chief Rabbinate. Prime Minister Netanyahu committed himself to the non-Orthodox Jewish religious streams, and the appointment letters received by the Committee members explicitly stated that its recommendations would be accepted only if approved by all of its members. Despite Yaakov Ne'eman's many attempts, the Chief Rabbinate rejected the draft conclusions, which required cooperation with the non-Orthodox Jewish streams.

Even the Reform movement refused to approve these recommendations precisely because of the underlying reason behind the current bill proposed by Interior Minister Deri.

Even the Reform movement refused to approve these recommendations precisely because of the underlying reason behind the current bill proposed by Interior Minister Deri. Namely, that conversions officially accepted by the State of Israel would exclude non-Orthodox conversions. It should therefore be expected that Prime Minister Netanyahu and the other Coalition partners, whose consent is needed for this proposed bill to move forward, state their opposition to it for violating Israel's religious "status quo".

This manipulative proposal undermines the very notion of the Jewish and democratic character of State of Israel. Under the guise of ensuring that conversion is not abused, it would in effect legislate that only such conversions as acceptable to the Chief Rabbinate would be recognized by the State – even for civil purposes! The fallacy of the Interior Ministry’s initiative is evident in light of the Supreme Court's clear position that preventing abuse of conversion and proper oversight have nothing to do with the specific religious category of conversion, and can be achieved in other ways, which allow for religious diversity. The Ministry claims that the memorandum merely reflects the legal state of affairs prior to the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling on private conversions performed in Israel, but this isn’t a description of a legal state of affairs – they are describing an ILLEGAL state of affairs!

Moreover, it is absurd to see how Deri is trying to promote his friend Chief Rabbi Yosef's monopoly over conversions performed in Israel. After all, the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox leadership in Israel has turned to European Rabbinical Conference and encouraged it to protest against rabbis who send prospective converts to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate... for its conversion process is clearly too lenient.

It is time to end the pretentiousness of the Chief Rabbinate and its political emissaries, such as Interior Minister Deri, as if they represent the highest halakhic and moral authority in Judaism, in the State of Israel, or in the Jewish world. It is high, high time to realize the Israeli Declaration of Independence's promise for freedom of religion and equality for all.

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