Op-Ed: Proposed Israeli conversion bill is deeply flawed

Rabbi Uri Regev, president of Hiddush, which advocates for religious freedom and equality in Israel. ()

Rabbi Uri Regev, president of Hiddush, which advocates for religious freedom and equality in Israel. ()

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, dispatched his deputy minister, Danny Ayalon, and Knesset member David Rotem to the United States this week to pacify the Jewish leadership agitating over the conversion bill his party is trying to push through the Knesset. 

Their mantra is clear: You simply don’t understand. You have nothing to worry about. Conversions taking place overseas will not be affected.

However, under the guise of helping immigrants from the former Soviet Union get converted to Judaism, the law in reality strengthens the power of the Chief Rabbinate, jeopardizing the achievements of the non-Orthodox movements and creating a wedge between born Jews and Jews by choice.

Rather than draw the logical and necessary conclusion supported by the clear majority of Israel and world Jewry — namely, removing the monopoly over conversion and marriage in Israel from the Orthodox Rabbinate altogether — Yisrael Beiteinu and Rotem went the opposite way.

Several months ago they pushed through the Knesset a shameful Registered Union law, which offers quasi-marriage only to one “religionless” individual to enter into a “union” with another “religionless” individual of the opposite sex. While some 400,000 Israeli citizens — including non-Orthodox converts to Judaism who live in Israel and many immigrants from the former Soviet Union — are barred from marrying in Israel, this new law would apply to only approximately 200 couples a year who must be willing to be branded publicly as “goyim.”

The bill as it stands betrays the principles of “freedom of religion and conscience” promised in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, betrays the will of the people and betrays Yisrael Beiteinu’s own constituents, most of whom are said to be immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

A growing number of rabbinic judges are now voiding lenient Orthodox conversions. Similarly, some chief rabbis of Israeli cities refuse to marry such converts if they deem them insufficiently observant.

Rotem presents the bill as providing protection against nullification of conversions, but the bill does nothing of the sort.

The most recent draft mandates that the ultimate authority in deciding whether a conversion would be nullified rests in the hands of a special panel of the Rabbinic Court of Appeals appointed by its president — currently Rabbi Shlomo Amar — and requiring his explicit consent.

Given the pattern of growing extremism in the rabbinic establishment and the dominance of the ultra-Orthodox, or haredim, in the selection of chief rabbis, there is a real danger that the Jewish status of converts is becoming conditional and temporary. This law does not provide safety measures other than entrusting the decision to a chief rabbi who may not live up to Rotem’s hopes for moderation.

Made aware of this problem, Rotem now reportedly is saying that he will change the draft so that the ultimate authority over each conversion will remain in the hands of the court that conducted the conversion. He is honest, though, to admit that he has no idea if the haredi parties will agree to this. I predict they won’t.

In landmark Israeli Supreme Court decisions in the past decade, two chief justices, Meir Shamgar and Aharon Barak, ruled that the Rabbinate should not be given any special authority in deciding who is a Jew for civil issues, such as the Law of Return and being registered as a Jew in the Population Registry. Rather, they said, a civil state authority should oversee recognizing conversions in Israel. They strongly rejected the state’s claim that this was a matter to be decided by the Chief Rabbinate.

Rotem’s bill instead increases the power of the Chief Rabbinate over conversion. Just as bad, the bill would limit recognition of Jewish status under the Law of Return by denying converts who spent time in Israel prior to their conversion the right to automatic citizenship under the Law of Return. This would establish for the first time a highly objectionable wedge between Jews by birth and converts to Judaism. 

Rotem and Ayalon should be hearing unequivocal and strong criticism from American Jewish leaders, who ought to resent the attempt to divide and conquer by drawing a distinction between American non-Orthodox movements and their Israeli counterparts, and by a bill that would treat converts as second-class Jews.

It is time that Israel be guided by its own founding vision for equality and freedom of religion. This is the desire of the majority of Israelis and world Jews: pluralism rather than constantly giving in to the haredim. This will not only strengthen Israel as a democracy but also will enhance Israel’s Jewish character.

Freedom of religion will bring Jews back, in creative ways, to their rich Jewish heritage. Religious coercion will only drive them further away. Both Israel’s well-being and its future relationship with the Jewish people will depend on ending the anti-pluralistic monopoly of the haredim. The Rotem bill in its current formulation is a move in the wrong direction.

(Rabbi Uri Regev is president and CEO of Hiddush, which advocates for religious freedom and equality in Israel.)

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