The Conversion Crisis, Again


Are we back to square one in the debate over conversions in Israel? It appears so, but first a brief review of this unfortunate episode. A year ago there was great concern about a proposed bill in the Knesset that would allow only Orthodox rabbis to officiate at conversions in Israel. Large numbers of liberal American Jews were angry and upset at the prospect so the Israeli government stepped in and set up the Neeman Commission to try to reconcile religious differences among the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements.Under Finance Minister Yaacov Neeman, the commission, made up of representatives from each of the religious streams, spent many months seeking a solution to the conversion issue.

It finally came up with a proposal for a joint conversion institute that would allow participation from each of the streams, with the actual conversion officiated by an Orthodox rabbi.But now, four months after the commission concluded its work, it has become all too clear that the results of that effort are still in dispute, and the conversion law is back in play.It’s as if the two sides here are operating on parallel universes.

The Israeli government, acting as if the commission was a success, moved swiftly to implement the Neeman proposals and establish a conversion institute.But the Conservative and Reform movements insist that the Neeman Commission was a failure because it did not receive the approval of the Orthodox chief rabbinate. So they’ve opted to go ahead with court cases that would recognize their movements in Israel.The crux of the disagreement lies in assessing the role, if any, of the chief rabbinate in this complex equation. The Conservative and Reform say that the Orthodox leaders’ involvement is crucial, and without their participation, all else is meaningless, even accusing Neeman of deliberate deception.

But the government insists that while it would have been preferable had the chief rabbis approved of the Neeman proposals, their support is not essential. The government is hoping that once the conversion institutes are established, and potential converts complete the course, their cases will be viewed sympathetically by moderate religious judges appointed by the chief rabbinate.In seeking to keep a lid on this explosive issue, the government has sought to avoid both legislation in the Knesset — the passage of the conversion bill — and litigation in the courts, where past rulings have favored the liberal denominations. The government wants to give the conversion institute a chance and see if it can solve the problem. It believes the chief rabbinate will moderate its views, for political if not theological reasons, noting that Neeman, as finance minister, plays a key role in determining the religious authority’s budget.But the situation came to a head, again, last week on both fronts. The Conservative movement’s court case involving 14 would-be converts is moving forward, despite government calls for delay.

Bobby Brown, who advises Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on diaspora affairs, says the danger is that if the court rules in favor of the liberal movements, it will force the hand of Orthodox opponents who will respond by pushing through a conversion bill in the Knesset allowing only Orthodox officiation at conversions.That’s what appears to be happening now, though the new wrinkle is that the proposed Knesset bill would codify the Neeman proposals, creating a joint conversion institute and calling for the chief rabbinate to officiate at the end of the process.Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, who heads the Association of Reform Zionists of America, says the Neeman bill is “the conversion law in disguise,” since it would “codify the ultra-Orthodox monopoly in Israel.”Government officials would prefer no Knesset bill, but say the Neeman version at least would, for the first time, recognize the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel.It’s difficult to separate partisanship from pragmatism here, but the question remains whether the key players want to achieve some sort of workable compromise or push their own cause, regardless of the resultant fallout.The only hope for avoiding a religious showdown is to put aside both the legislation and litigation. That means supporting the conversion institute, while seeking to ensure that the religious judges appointed are in the spirit of Bet Hillel, the moderate Talmudic school.

Any other approach would only achieve a Pyhrric victory for one side. If the liberal streams are successful in the courts, the Orthodox will respond with a tough conversion bill that will deepen religious divisions and underscore the political advantage the Orthodox have in Israel. And if the Orthodox push through their bill, many American Jews will retaliate by cutting back on their financial support for Israel, and the depths of alienation will run deep.A successful compromise means that neither side is content, but there can be no real victory in a struggle between Jews when one side consumes the other.