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.