Bill giving Rabbinate control over all conversions in Israel advances

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Government ministers approved a bill that would require the state to recognize only conversions completed under the auspices of the haredi Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate.

A majority of the members of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation OK’s the bill Sunday. It now must pass three readings in the Knesset plenum.

The bill was opposed by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofia Landwer, both of the Yisrael Beiteinu party.

The legislation, which was submitted in May by the Interior Ministry led by Aryeh Deri, the former head of the haredi Orthodox Shas party, would circumvent a March 2016 Supreme Court ruling that allowed those undergoing private Orthodox conversions in Israel to become citizens under the Law of Return. In the wake of the 2016 decision, the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel asked the court for the same recognition of their private conversions in Israel.

Israel currently recognizes Reform and Conservative conversions for the purpose of Jewish immigration only if performed abroad. The legislation would also negate the conversions of the Giyur Kahalacha private Orthodox conversion courts established two years ago largely in order to help Jews from the former Soviet Union who qualified as Jewish in order to immigrate to Israel but cannot marry under the auspices of the rabbinate.

Prior to the committee vote, Giyur KaHalacha President Rabbi Nachum Rabinovich called on the government ministers from the religious Zionist Jewish Home party to prevent the legislation from reaching the Knesset plenum.

“The proposed legislation directly hurts thousands of converts who converted in Israel over the years, and is also in complete contradiction to halachah,” or Jewish law, Rabinovich said in a statement. “There was never a precedent for a senior rabbinical authority interfering with these matters,” of conversions in private communities.  “It is clear to me that this proposal is not your own initiative, but lending a hand to the proposal and approving it in the ministerial committee will constitute an permanent stain on your important activity as well as on the activity of the entire ‘Jewish Home’ party in the current Knesset.”

Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM,  an organization that helps Israelis navigate religious bureaucracy, and a founder of the Giyur Kahalacha courts, called the bill in its current form “a nightmare for every citizen of the State of Israel and more than this – to every Jew living anywhere in the world.”

“How can it be that in the State of Israel in 2017 will ignore the teachings of the Shulchan Aruch (a book of Jewish law), which allows every recognized rabbinical community to enable the conversion of a person seeking to join the Jewish people – and they do this with the sponsorship of ultra-orthodox parties. It is an outrage,” Farber said. “Among the citizens of the State of Israel, there are thousands of people today who are stuck between a rock and a hard place, they are not recognized as citizens of equal value but on the other hand are required to perform all their civic duties. These people are not in this situation out of choice, but due to the cruel constraints that are a result of the national conversion system. We must not ignore the call of the hour , Israel has a responsibility towards olim to enable them to become full members of the State and of our people.”

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