Jewish Journal


July 20, 2010

The Israeli Conversion Bill:  What it means and why everyone’s so mad


Last week, Knesset member David Rotem unveiled a new draft of a bill that he claimed would expand, liberalize and rationalize Israel’s system of conversion. The bill would also hand over to Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate unprecedented new “responsibility over the subject of conversion.” On July 12, it passed through the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and reignited the debate over the rabbinate’s role in Israeli society. It also revived the ultra-sensitive “who is a Jew?” question and set off a firestorm of criticism in a number of Israeli circles and letter-writing protest campaigns among Jewish communities across the world.

There is much confusion about what the Chief Rabbinate of Israel (Amendment — Jurisdiction Regarding Conversions) Bill, 5770-2010 does and does not say. Some observers wonder what — if any — practical impact it would have if passed.

As of The Journal’s press time on July 20, the bill had not yet had its first reading before the Knesset plenum. On July 18, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his opposition to the bill in a cabinet meeting, saying that it could “tear apart the Jewish people.” The bill could still reach the Knesset floor on July 21, the last day before the Knesset breaks for a recess that will last through the end of the High Holy Days, but in light of Netanyahu’s strong statement, it is highly unlikely that the Rotem bill will have come to a vote by the time this story is published, as any bill has to go through three readings in the Knesset before becoming law. But even if a clear outcome is somehow reached, the historic fight over the Rotem bill involves so many competing interests in Israel and has inspired such fierce protest from so many Jews in the Diaspora that it demands a closer look.

Few people can say exactly what the Rotem bill will do. “If you were to read a translation, it would be baffling,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, CEO and president of the Israeli educational and advocacy organization Hiddush, which is dedicated to “Freedom of Religion and Equality.” According to Regev, Rotem’s three-page bill claims to accomplish two things: “One, to provide greater availability of conversion venues for the new immigrants — namely authorizing more rabbis, and among them hopefully some lenient rabbis to do conversions.” The bill’s other stated aim, Regev said, is to address “the phenomenon of rabbinic courts that hold that Orthodox conversions are null and void.”

The “new immigrants” that Regev, Rotem and everyone else has been talking about are those who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Many of them support the right-wing, secular and nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party. Rotem is one of the party’s 15 ministers, and the party is in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.

Approximately 1 million citizens from the former Soviet Union live in Israel today, and like all olim (Jews who move to Israel), they became Israeli citizens under the Law of Return. But, although under that law a person can qualify for citizenship simply by having a Jewish father or grandparent, she (or he) will not be considered a Jew by the rabbinate’s Orthodox standards without being able to trace a clear lineage of matrilineal Jewish roots, or else undergoing an Orthodox conversion. Approximately 350,000 of the Israelis from the former Soviet Union — 15 percent of Israel’s citizens — are not Jews according to the Orthodox rabbinate. And because the rabbinate has, since the Jewish state’s founding, been in charge of all major lifecycle events in Israel — including birth, marriage, divorce and burial — that status has serious implications. “They are Israeli citizens,” Regev said, but “they cannot marry in Israel.”

So it is understandable why Rotem might wish to resolve this situation. Even the bill’s most outspoken critics agree that something must be done.

“The bill started from a good place,” said Gilad Kariv, the head of the Reform movement in Israel. Rotem was not the first legislator, Kariv said, to try to “deal with the Orthodox conversion crisis,” nor was this most recent draft Rotem’s first attempt. But this bill diverged from Rotem’s earlier drafts, Kariv said, by adding a “disturbing element”: “To buy the Charedi [ultra-orthodox] parties,” Kariv said, Rotem “agreed to put exclusive authority over conversion in Israel into the hands of the Chief Rabbinate.”

“It will be first time that the issue of conversion will be handed over to the Chief Rabbinate,” Kariv said.

Ariel Picard, director of the center for education at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, speculated further on what motivated Rotem. “They call it ‘the Riskin law,’ ” Picard said, referring to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, the town in the West Bank where Rotem lives. “What he [Rotem] wants to do is give authority to his local rabbi, who is known to be lenient.” Riskin is from New York and has taken lenient positions on women’s halachic issues over the course of his career.

Today, the only conversions performed in Israel that the rabbinate recognizes are those overseen by one of the rabbinate’s own regional courts or one of the Special Rabbinic Courts set up to deal only with conversions. In 2009, 1,801 Russian olim converted in these courts — less than 1 percent of the total number targeted by Rotem. Under the proposed bill, current and former municipal rabbis and rabbis of local councils (like Riskin) could set up their own special rabbinical courts, provided that — and this phrasing is crucial — “the conversion is performed by the special court lawfully, following acceptance of the burden of the Torah and commandments as required by Jewish law.”

That last condition was, according to Jewish Federations of North America President and CEO Jerry Silverman, added just days before Rotem presented the bill to his committee. “What it’s saying is that the only conversions [the rabbinate] will accept is of a person absolutely committing to Orthodoxy,” Silverman said.

The clause led critics to question whether the bill could possibly do anything to achieve its first stated goal. “It was never going to help them,” Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said. She was speaking of the Israelis from the former Soviet Union, who are not likely to take on an Orthodox lifestyle. “The ultimate authority of those local courts rests right back with the same people. It rests right back with the office of the chief rabbi, with the people who have the same extreme views, and it is those extreme views that are preventing the Russians and others from being able to join the Jewish people.”

Silverman agrees. “The original intent of the bill was to ease conversion, and to especially ease conversion for the tens of thousands of Russian-speaking Jews who came to this country, and it’s a great concept. But all this new language,” Silverman said, referring to the emphasis on accordance with halachah — Jewish law — “changes what we think is the intent of the bill, and based on our experts, the bill will not achieve its goal, with this new language.”

The outcry against the Rotem bill has come primarily from religious non-Orthodox Israelis and the international Jewish community — and no part of the bill attracted more immediate attention from the Diaspora than the bill’s third article. It would amend the section of Israel’s 1952 Nationality Law that deals with the way a person can become an Israeli citizen under the Law of Return.

The proposed amendment said that a non-Jew who comes to Israel and then subsequently converts, either in Israel or abroad, would not be eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Only if their conversion preceded their first visit to Israel would they qualify for citizenship.

But when Rotem introduced the bill to his committee, this article was not voted on, and Rotem said it would be removed from the draft. Had he not done so, Kariv explained, the amendment would have “disconnect[ed] for the first time the automatic connection between conversion and citizenship,” and would have “create[d] for the first time a distinction between Jews by choice and Jews by birth in Israel.”

Rotem has repeatedly said that his bill has nothing to do with Jews outside ofIsrael. But even with the third article excised, many Jewish leaders in the Diaspora disagree.

“Minister Rotem and the supporters of his bill don’t understand that this bill is as much about world Jewry as it is about Israel,” said Jay Sanderson, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. He reported that more than 75,000 American Jews have sent letters and e-mails to Netanyahu urging him to act against the bill. “Anyone who’s a Reform Jew, a Conservative Jew, anyone going though a non-Orthodox conversion and has children, wants to make aliyah or wants to live in Israel, is going to be looked at differently if this bill gets passed,” Sanderson said.

No one interviewed for this article could say exactly what practical impact the bill in its current form — without the third article — would have on Jews outside of Israel. Rabbi David Rue, who has been head of the Orthodox Los Angeles Beit Din (rabbinical court) since 2000, seemed to agree with Rotem, that the bill would have no impact on Jews who convert under non-Orthodox supervision outside of Israel. “It’s not going to affect them,” Rue said. “In terms of aliyah, they’ll still be eligible under the new law. They can’t get married by the [Israeli rabbinate] now, and they won’t be able to get married [in Israel] if this passes. So what’s the difference?”

Rabbi Seth Farber, the Orthodox founder and director of ITIM, the Israeli nonprofit Jewish Life Information Center, explained that what worried Reform and Conservative leaders was the possibility that gains made previously in the Israeli Supreme Court might be invalidated by the new bill. In 1988, the court decided that non-Orthodox conversions performed in the Diaspora would count for purposes of aliyah. A 2002 decision stated that Israelis who convert under non-Orthodox supervision in Israel would be counted as part of the state’s Jewish population. And even though Conservative and Reform-converted Jews are in the same boat as the olim from the former Soviet Union vis-à-vis the rabbinate, the movements still “made a lot of progress” over the past 20 years. The Rotem bill looked like it would roll all that back. “It was a theoretical possibility that the court might revisit those decisions,” Farber said, “saying that those decisions were made in the absence of law.”

Many Jewish leaders in the United States (particularly those from Jewish Federations, the Jewish Agency, and the Conservative and Reform movements) as well as many individual American Jews have made clear that the message the Rotem bill sends to Diaspora Jewry will not be taken lightly — even if its practical impact is hard to identify. The New York Board of Rabbis (NYBR), the largest interdenominational rabbinic organization in the world, made that sentiment clear in its letter to Netanyahu. “The recent actions of the Knesset Law Committee gratuitously undermine our achdut [unity] and scatter our focus,” the board wrote. “Does this conflagration really serve the interests of Am Yisrael [the Nation of Israel] and Medinat Yisrael [the State of Israel]?” 

The overwhelming majority of Jews outside of Israel — some 85 percent — are not Orthodox. The Orthodox minority has been far less vocal in support of or in opposition to the Rotem Bill. The NYBR — whose letter had the signature of at least one Orthodox rabbi at the bottom — has been one of the few exceptions to the rule. (Farber is another.)

Part of this may be the result of confusion about the bill’s language. Rue, whose beit din converts “between 30 and 100” people per year, said, “I don’t think anyone knows what the implications of the bill will be, because it will need to be interpreted by the courts.”

The Shalom Hartman Institute’s Picard explained that even if the bill passes — and he didn’t expect it would — more laws would need to be legislated. Take Riskin as an example: Even if Rotem’s lenient hometown rabbi were allowed to perform conversions, the decision over whether to register someone for marriage would still be left in the hands of the more stringent rabbinate, which could refuse to recognize the conversions done by liberal rabbis. “It will create a need to give authority to local rabbis over marriage and divorce,” Picard said.

Or it would take the Jews whose conversions were performed by Orthodox rabbis deemed too lenient by the Charedi rabbinate and lump them into the same pool as everyone else whose status the rabbinate calls into question. That group currently includes Jews whose conversions were performed by non-Orthodox rabbis, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and, since 2006, it has also included Jews whose Orthodox conversions have been retroactively annulled by the Israeli rabbinic authority.

Solving the problem of retroactive annulment is the second stated aim of Rotem’s bill. In the past four years, the rabbinate has upheld rulings in a number of cases that refuse to recognize even Orthodox-supervised conversions as valid. In some, the conversions being invalidated are decades old, and some of the annulments are based on very stringent readings of halachah.

The new stringency of the rabbinate in Israel has been taken to its most extreme in Ashkelon, Ashdod and Rishon LeZion, where the rabbis in charge of marriage registration refuse to recognize any conversion at all, no matter which court oversaw it.

Rotem’s bill would require the approval of the Chief Judge of the Supreme Rabbinical Court (a position currently held by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar) for any cancellation of a conversion. This clause, Rotem claims, will eliminate the risk of conversions being retroactively nullified. The bill would first force any nullification case to go back to the court that performed the conversion — which Regev called “a good thing,” because the original court “has an interest in keeping the conversion intact.” But because the final arbiter is the chief rabbi, the original court “would be under tremendous pressure” to rule stringently. If it went to an appeal, Regev explained, the panel would be “hand-picked by Rabbi Amar.” And even if Amar turns out to be a lenient chief rabbi, interested in making conversion a realistic possibility for numerous olim from the former Soviet Union, that’s no guarantee that his successor would also be. “When you look at the bill,” Regev said of its ability to prevent retroactive annulment, “you see that it’s a joke.”

The specter of seeing their conversions cancelled by the Israeli rabbinate has changed the conversion landscape for the Orthodox movement in the United States as well. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest organization of Orthodox Rabbis in this country, established a new, stricter framework for conversion in an effort to give Jews by choice greater assurance that their Orthodox conversions would be recognized by the Israeli rabbinate. (In a statement on July 19, the RCA acknowledged that the Rotem bill “may not be perfect,” but that it “does contain much to commend it,” and urged Diaspora Jews “to respect Israel’s internal political processes.”)

Rue — whose Orthodox beit din is not endorsed by the RCA — said he regularly gets his converts registered in Israel and wasn’t worried about the Rotem bill. “It’s not going to affect me,” Rue said. “I know too many people.”
“The situation in Israel is insane,” Rue said, painting a picture of a conversion system in which connections are key, city rabbis can decide to register or not register people independently of what the “very weak chief rabbis” say, and, “Israeli bureaucrats can do whatever they want.” For Rue, the key question is, “Do you know how to work the system or not?”

Nobody knows what will happen if the bill passes. The former Soviet Union olim are “clearly not particularly religious,” Regev said, “and clearly not going to be particularly adherent to mitzvot,” which would make it unlikely that they would convert within the rabbinate’s Orthodox framework. “Fewer and fewer immigrants are interested in conversion,” Regev said, “on two counts: One, they realize what kind of hoops they will have to go through.” Also, “They realize that it’s really a conditional status,” Regev said of the status of even Orthodox converts in Israel today — one that can be revoked at any time. Secondly, “They realize that life really isn’t impossible for them without conversion,” Regev said. “They have become accustomed to living their lives without going through conversions.”

If the bill is stopped, however, the challenge doesn’t disappear. There seems to be a consensus among the most vocal of the bill’s critics that part of the solution to this crisis will be a new kind of conversion. “We are clearly living at a time when the overriding concern should be to increase the number of Jews in the world,” Rabbi Marc D. Angel, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, said. “To maintain the current conversion policies in Israel is in direct conflict with the best interests of Israel and the Jewish people.” But that’s where the consensus breaks down.

Angel, an Orthodox rabbi, promotes a more lenient form of halachic conversion.

The Rabbinical Assembly’s Schonfeld suggested something more radical: a new kind of Judaism in Israel. “The solution is an open religious system that would include not only Reform and Masorti [Conservative Judaism],” she said, “but that would include the indigenous Israeli Jewish expression that would come from an open and pluralist society. What’s really going to get people to convert to Judaism is that they see a Judaism that they want to convert to.”

Regev said that his organization, Hiddush, was created with the ideal of turning Israel into a country that practices religious freedom and equality. “Across the board, you find abuses and a denial of basic liberties,” Regev said. He mentioned a number of recent instances of the ultra-Orthodox imposing their ideals on the Israeli public, including the establishment of gender-segregated bus routes, staging protests at the entrances to public parking lots on Shabbat, fighting against the integration of racially segregated government-funded schools, and verbally and physically attacking the Women of the Wall, who attempt to pray as men do (with tallit, tefillin and kippah) at the Western Wall. Regev said that the fight over the conversion bill is, “at best, stage one of the central battle.”

Picard says he has seen Israelis rail against the rabbinate, but he would prefer to see Israelis take responsibility and create “a very serious secular Judaism [with] its own ideas about marriage, burial and, of course, about conversion.”

But most native-born, secular Israelis do not seem to be paying attention to the debate.

“They’re sleeping through this,” Los Angeles Federation President Sanderson said on July 16. “I think that the population in Israel doesn’t understand this bill. It’s not being talked about in the way that it should be, and it’s really being talked about more in the Diaspora, and that’s a shame. It’s a real shame, because I think that if this bill gets passed, the Israeli population is going to wake up on Thursday morning [July 22] and they’re going to be living in a different country.”

Speaking from Israel early on July 19, national Federation CEO Silverman — having heard Netanyahu come out in forceful opposition to the bill the day before — said that he was hopeful about the prospects of sitting at a table “with authors of the bill, and with the constituencies that want to have input” in an effort to come up with a new bill.

The goal was, Silverman said, “to come back to its original intent and its original vision, which was terrific. If that happens, then everyone wins, and everyone has a seat at the table. Frankly, it enhances relationships and unifies us as people.”

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