Identity Card Compromise Could Stem Conversion Crisis

Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate was slated to convene Monday for what some Israeli legislators viewed as “make-or-break” deliberations on a recommended solution to the crisis over conversions performed in the Jewish state.

The Ne’eman Committee, which presented its recommendations to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Friday, called for the Conservative and Reform movements to participate along with Orthodox representatives in conversion classes, but granted the Orthodox the sole right to carry out the conversions.

Although the committee’s Orthodox, Conservative and Reform members were said to be in agreement on the proposal, the report was submitted to Netanyahu unsigned, waiting for final comment from the Chief Rabbinate.

But amid uncertainty over whether the rabbinate would endorse the recommendations, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel offered an alternative that could temporarily assuage the crisis if the Ne’eman Committee’s recommendations were rejected.

Avraham Burg announced Sunday that the three major streams of Judaism had reached a “technical understanding” on the registration of individuals converted in Israel.

Under the arrangement those converted in Israel by the non-Orthodox streams would be listed as Jews on their identity cards, but the population registry would keep a record of the type of conversion.

This arrangement would not affect a convert’s rights as an Israeli citizen, but the Religious Affairs Ministry could continue to deny recognition of their marriages and burials because they were not converted under the aegis of the Orthodox.

While Orthodox authorities would probably not recognize such converts as Jewish, an agreement to record them as Jewish on identity cards would be a significant breakthrough for the non-Orthodox movements.

Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, who acted as a representative for Chief Sephardi Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron in the discussions organized by Burg over the past several months, stressed that “this solution means one thing for the state, and another entirely for the religious authorities.”

Burg said the plan is “not intended to replace the Ne’eman Committee work by any means, but to offer an alternative, if necessary.”

Meanwhile, the recommendations of the Ne’eman Committee, which came after seven months of deliberations, may provide a solution to a protracted crisis that has the potential to bring down the Netanyahu government.

In a letter to the prime minister, Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman, who heads the committee, termed the compromise a “breakthrough for the unity of the Jewish people” and expressed hope that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate would view it the same way.

But there was considerable uncertainty over whether the rabbinate would indeed agree.

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau this week denied reports that he had rejected the Ne’eman committee recommendations out of hand, saying he had yet to review them.

And Bakshi-Doron, while welcoming the work of the committee, still evaded questions over whether he would agree to meet with Reform leaders, saying that he would not refuse to meet “any Jew.”

But representatives from Israel’s religious political parties were more to the point.

While they said they welcomed any decision that would firmly establish the Orthodox establishment’s sole authority over conversions performed in Israel, they said they could not accept any move that legitimized the non-Orthodox movements.

“I do not believe any religious person could accept a Jewish studies institute which includes Reform lecturers, and I do not believe that the Chief Rabbinate can accept it,” said Knesset member Avraham Ravitz of United Torah Judaism.

If both the Ne’eman Committee’s proposal and the “technical understanding” are rejected, Israel’s religious political parties are likely to demand renewed legislative action on the conversion bill, which would codify the Orthodox establishment’s sole authority over Jewish conversions in Israel.

Coalition partners from the Third Way and Yisrael Ba’Aliyah factions said Sunday that if the committee’s proposal is rejected, they would vote against the conversion bill — even if presented as a no-confidence vote against the Netanyahu government.

“As far as I am concerned, the Ne’eman Committee proposal meets the requirements of halachah,” or Jewish religious law, said Third Way Knesset member Alex Lubotzky. “If the Chief Rabbinate and Orthodox parties do not accept the recommendations, I know I for one am ready to vote against the conversion bill, and I’m sure members of my faction will join me.”

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