Regev Responds

A move to entrench the Orthodox monopoly over conversions

Inching closer to the next "Who is a Jew" explosion

This week, additional information leaked as to the nature of Moshe Nissim's recommendations regarding a new conversion bill. As our readers may remember, Moshe Nissim was appointed by PM Netanyahu to do damage control after Diaspora Jewry’s uproar last June when the government ceded to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox parties to pass a conversion bill aimed at preempting a pluralistic Supreme Court ruling in a pending case. This bill would further entrench the Orthodox monopoly over conversions performed in Israel.

A conversion court in sessionA conversion court in session

The self-righteous claim was: this appointment was yet another genuine effort to square the circle and bring about a mutually agreed upon solution to the "Who is a Jew" controversy, which would appease both the ultra-Orthodox fundamentalist forces in Israel and Diaspora liberal Judaism. Even President Rivlin didn't buy this ruse and publicly made it clear that he did not believe that such a solution could be found. However, Netanyahu's pressure on the opposing parties served him well. He gained acquiescence from the non-Orthodox movements to freeze all pending litigation on conversions performed in Israel and desist from bringing any new cases in return for holding off on the Haredi parties' demands for legislation.

This temporarily reduced the pressure and took the issue out of the headlines for a while. Of course, the agreed upon six months stretched into a year, and in the next few days, Moshe Nissim's proposal will be submitted.

At the outset, as soon as Nissim was appointed, Hiddush maintained that this was ample evidence that no mutually acceptable solution could be expected. Sure enough, when information leaked last month as to the direction Nissim was pursuing, it became further clear that we were correct. This week, additional information about his proposed framework became known, and we recommend that you read about it HERE on Ynet.

There will be need for careful and detailed analysis of the proposal once it becomes public. As we know, the devil is in the details. At this point, we would like to make a couple of observations in anticipation of what is to come:

  • Nissim's approach is about "divide and conquer." On the face of it, it attempts to relieve the minds of the Diaspora non-Orthodox movements that no change will occur to the limited level of recognition that their converts receive in Israel. It is only their brothers and sisters in Israel who will be further hurt. The Orthodox monopoly over conversions performed in Israel will now be - FOR THE FIRST TIME(!) - anchored in Knesset legislation, making it potentially immune from judicial intervention. Hopefully, the non-Orthodox movements will not fall into this trap. Hopefully, they will respond with a three-fold message:
    1. We stand for the rights, dignities, and recognition of our sister movements and colleagues in Israel - no less than we expect that our rights, dignities, and recognition be respected.
    2. Not only will we not be pacified by the singling out of Israeli liberal Judaism for exclusion, but we are also committed to pursuing the yet unaddressed lack of recognition of our own converts and their children when it comes to marriage, as well as the unacceptable reality in which members of our communities who make Aliyah and receive Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return find themselves denied the right to family.
    3. In pursuing the above, we are strengthened by the knowledge that we are supported by the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews who want to see pluralism and religious freedom expanded, all Jewish streams gaining equal status, and marriage becoming a matter of free choice, rather than religious coercion.
  • By all means, let's take the matter to the public - both in Israel and throughout the Jewish world – and let’s have an open and honest exchange as to whether a Jewish and democratic Israel can continue being under the exclusive governance of Orthodoxy.
  • Some may find the inclusion of two representatives of the Diaspora non-Orthodox movements in the Conversion Authority to be a welcome step. However, what we should bear in mind is that this has no real effect whatsoever. In the famous Ne'eman Commission, PM Netanyahu accepted that all decisions needed the agreement of the non-Orthodox representatives. No other approach was possible because the majority of the Commission was Orthodox. This is exactly what will happen with the Conversion Authority. Netanyahu will present this (if it materializes) as a commitment to pluralism, but in effect these token representatives will be sidestepped, especially given the overall framework of the legislative initiative, which is intended to preserve and perpetuate Orthodox control over conversion and exclude liberal alternatives. Further, nobody should think that this bill would lead to the acceptance of Modern Orthodox conversion initiatives. Given the absolutist scope of the legislative initiative, it may deny liberal Orthodox converts even the limited recognition, which they may currently enjoy under precedents established in the past by the non-Orthodox movements in Israel.
  • On the face of it, the proposed move may seem like it will weaken the Chief Rabbinate and open a window of opportunity for conversions that do not receive its blessings. However, one must be very naive to believe that this will be the case. The Authority and its functioning will be spearheaded by the Prime Minister. The same Netanyahu who could not deliver on an agreement he and his people made with the leadership of the non-Orthodox movements after years of negotiation, merely because the ultra-Orthodox parties threatened to pull the rug out from under his government. The same Netanyahu who surrendered to the demands of the Haredi parties to select ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbis for Israel and defeat a Modern Zionist Orthodox candidate. He is not the Prime Minister who is going to herald a conversion revolution because the new Conversion Authority is put at his disposal. It will undoubtedly fall prey to the same political maneuvering that almost exclusively dictates Israel's religion-state conflicts.
  • Given the highly fragile and explosive political situation in Israel today (with common wisdom being that there is no longer a question of whether elections will be held earlier than the expected legal date in 2019, but rather how much earlier), the Prime Minister will probably try to use the new proposal, showing off its seemingly liberal facets to suggest that further negotiations and dialogue are necessary. He will suggest that the non-Orthodox movements refrain from going to war over the bill and continue freezing their litigation, and that the actual legislation be postponed further as well. Hopefully, the leadership of American Jewry, especially the non-Orthodox movements, will not be lured by such rhetoric, nor by pressure from Netanyahu. By all means, let's take the matter to the public - both in Israel and throughout the Jewish world – and let’s have an open and honest exchange as to whether a Jewish and democratic Israel can continue being under the exclusive governance of Orthodoxy. The Government Coalition's political interest in suppressing open discourse and preventing strong expressions of support for pluralism and religious freedom is understandable. What would not be understandable is for liberal Jews to be effectively muzzled and indefinitely denied recognition and respect. Symbolic appointments to an otherwise Orthodox-controlled Authority is not the recognition nor the respect that is required. For Jewish unity to be fully realize and celebrated, coerced uniformity has to be set aside. No real dialogue can take place if all parties to the dialogue are not on equal footing.

As the Ynet article points out, attention should be drawn to the dismal failure of Israel’s Orthodox rabbinic establishment in addressing the historic challenge of conversion, especially that of the mass immigration from the FSU. Since state conversions began in 1996, less than 90,000 Israelis underwent Jewish conversion, and only 29,000 out of close to 400,000 (7.25 percent) of emigrants from the former Soviet Union who were not Jews have converted over the past 20 years. Many others want to convert, but they despair from the difficult and unfriendly process. Given these facts, the very idea of anchoring the Orthodox monopoly over conversion in Israel in law, given the Chief Rabbinate’s history of failure in serving Israel’s community, should certainly give one pause.

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