Controversial Israeli conversion bill delayed for 6 months

June 30, 2017
A general view shows a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament on July 11, 2016. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 via JTA

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a six-month delay in consideration of a controversial bill that would have made the haredi Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate the only body authorized by the government to perform conversions in Israel.

Following an outcry by non-Orthodox streams in Israel and abroad, Netanyahu’s office announced Friday that the legislation will not advance while a “team” he’ll appoint comes up with recommendations for an “arrangement” on the issue.

The status quo on conversions to Judaism in Israel would remain for six months, under an arrangement reached between Netanyahu and his haredi Orthodox coalition partners.

Netanyahu also asked Israel’s Supreme Court to put off weighing in on the issue during the delay.

Haredi parties in Israel are promoting legislation in Israel’s parliament that would grant the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly on conversions performed in Israel. The bill would state that individuals who convert under Reform, Conservative and private Orthodox auspices performed in Israel would not be eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return, a key indicator of status in Israel.

A source described by Haaretz as a “senior official” told the daily that Netanyahu decided to call a meeting on the issue of coalition party heads after receiving harsh warnings from the heads of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Thursday, as well as protests from other groups over the past few days.

According to Haaretz, Netanyahu called the meeting the following day to defuse the situation. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of the Separdic Shas party walked out before any deal was struck, Haaretz reported, but The Jerusalem Post said an agreement on the compromise was reached later in the day.

Meanwhile, the Reform and Conservative movements petitioned the Supreme Court seeking recognition by the state for non-Orthodox converts.

Under the compromise reached between Netanyahu and his haredi partners, “In effect, the appellants and the Government of Israel agree together to freeze all proceedings, to freeze the appeal to the High Court of Justice on the conversion issue, to freeze Government and Knesset legislation on the conversion issue,” the prime minister’s statement said. “This will also, of course, allow me to establish a team that will work for approximately six months on finding solutions for an agreed-upon arrangement on the conversion issue.”

Leaders of the Reform movement welcomed the decision to put off the conversion bill. “Today’s decision by the Israeli cabinet to postpone further action on the offensive ‘conversion bill’ is an important rebuke to the aggressive behavior of the ultra-Orthodox toward diaspora Jewry and the non-Orthodox streams,”  said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, president and CEO of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in a statement. “We will continue insisting that the Haredi establishment not have a monopoly over conversion and if necessary, we will not hesitate to go back to the courtroom.”

The fight by non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel and their allies for recognition of their conversions is part of their broader struggle for equal status in the Jewish state. The Chief Rabbinate, an Orthodox body, has an essential monopoly in key areas of religious and civic life, including marriage, conversion and kosher supervision.

Non-Orthodox groups in Israel and abroad were similarly inflamed earlier in the week when the Israeli Cabinet voted, under pressure from haredi parties, to suspend a compromise for creating an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

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