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Is Another Conversion Crisis Coming to a Theatre Near You?

by Shmuel Rosner

June 26, 2014 | 3:42 am

The Knesset, photo by Reuters/Baz Ratner

In the last couple of weeks, negotiations have been going on concerning new Israeli conversion legislation. Rabbi Haim Druckman, a well-known Israeli rabbi, was asked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to look for a compromise between two competing approaches. Netanyahu, no doubt, would like to see a reasonable piece of legislation pass in the Knesset. But one is allowed a shred of cynicism – Netanyahu wants to avoid a political crisis over an issue that is hardly at the top of his agenda.

Wanting to avoid political crisis is no reason for condemnation. But Netanyahu, thus far, hasn't achieved much by asking for Druckman's mediation. In fact, the more talks the parties have, the more they seem to understand that their disagreements will be hard to bridge. On one side, there is MK Elazar Stern of Hatnua. His proposed bill is supposed to do something quite simple – something that the infamous Rotem bill of several years ago also tried to do, but in a skewed way. That is, to give local rabbis in Israel the authority to convert Israelis. The thinking, put simply, is as follows: Among local rabbis one can search for more moderate approaches to conversion and more accommodating courts of conversion. If those rabbis can get the power from the state to convert, Israelis who want to convert but are reluctant to meet the inhospitable rabbinate might find a solution.

Of course, such a law has flaws, chief of which is that we don't know the number of Israelis who want to convert, even if the entry bar is lowered to better accommodate them. We do know that several hundred thousand Israelis (300,000 or so) are potential candidates. But whether they'd really buy in, we don't know – only through trial and error might we get an answer to that question.

So Stern and some Knesset allies want to make the attempt. They are opposed by the rabbinate, by deputy minister of religious affairs Eli Ben Dahan and his party, Habayit Hayehudi, and by the Haredi parties. Stern threatened to quit the coalition if his bill doesn't pass. Habayit Hayehudi, the Zionist-religious party, also threatened not to vote with the coalition if the bill passes – claiming an agreement establishing the coalition gives the party veto power over religion and state legislation.

Poor Druckman is supposed to square a circle that cannot be squared to spare us a crisis.

Three main issues separate the two sides of the conversion debate – all three have deep ideological reasons, but are also a result of a political power struggle over, well, power, jobs, influence and all the other things usually associated with political battles.

The first issue concerns the power of the chief rabbis. They want control. They want all conversions to have to have their approval – and not just a ceremonial or symbolic approval, but rather their actual approval. This undermines the whole meaning of the legislation, whose aim is to circumvent the rabbinate’s hardheaded policies.

The second issue is what the bill does, or might do, to the status of non-Orthodox streams in Israel. While the bill attempts to avoid any language that will increase (or decrease) the power of Conservative and Reform Judaism in Israel, opponents keep saying that it might -- If not now, down the road. Truth must be told: some legal experts agree that there is such possibility. They say that there are ways to interpret the law so that in a future situation it could be helpful to progressive Jewish causes.

The third issue is who sits on the conversion courts. This is, of course, key. The rabbinate wants as many obstacles as possible to ensure that only adherents to rabbinate ideology will be able to get a seat in the conversion courts. Stern wants flexibility – again, that is the whole point of having a law.

I’ve had a number of conversations this week with people involved with the bill as well as the talks, and I am under the impression that a compromise that both sides will be willing to live with is unlikely. Surrender by one side – maybe – but not a compromise that could keep this as a meaningful legislation. Publically, some participants are expressing optimism, yet behind closed doors the progress being made is hardly impressive. Both sides see this as a core issue for them, both insist that they are ready for a make-or-break crisis over it. In fact, the vote was supposed to take place as early as June23, but because of the abduction of the three Israeli teens and the military operation that has followed, a showdown was postponed.

Until when? Netanyahu, surely, would like it to be postponed permanently. That is one possible outcome of the process, if only the prime minister is able to come up with a reason good enough for Stern to agree to such postponement (Stern is a tough nut to crack).

Postponement, then, is one possible outcome. There are only two other likely outcomes:

Crisis: that is, one of the parties will lose, the other will win; one of the parties, or some members of one of the parties, will quit the coalition, and Netanyahu will have to collect other votes from other places.

Surrender: Stern is vulnerable, because he is only one MK from a small party (6 mandates) fighting against the much bigger Habayit Hayehudi. On the other hand, he might be the one who doesn't much care to break the rules of politics over this issue – conversion for Stern is a life's mission, not just another political cause to toy with.

This might be an interesting battle to watch – and it might be coming soon to a theater near you.

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