24 short and sober comments on the temporary halt of the conversion bill

June 29, 2017
Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather in Bnei Brak (Photo by Reuters)

A note to readers: This article was updated on Friday morning, following the decision by the Prime Minister to possibly freeze the controversial conversion law by sending it to a committee. A meeting of the heads of the parties that form the coalition was set for Friday morning.

My 24 short and sober comments on the sudden death of the Kotel compromise drew a significant volume of attention, and some readers suggested that I use the same format for writing about the no less controversial conversion bill. The law, advanced by the haredi parties, was approved on Sunday by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. The Knesset has not voted on it yet. The law is supposed to grant the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over the conversion of non-Israelis in Israel.

A word of warning: conversion is complicated, so this will not be as short as the Kotel article.


The timing of two separate decisions put many observers under the impression that the Kotel issue and the conversion law issue are similar issues. They are not.


You can read a lot about the Kotel decision here and here. But to put it shortly: it was a decision by the government to cancel its own previous decision because of political pressure. The conversion law is different. It is a decision by the government to circumvent a decision made by the Supreme Court. It is a battle waged by politicians against (what they consider to be) legislation from the bench.


Yes, you can blame the court for the conversion law crisis. The Supreme Court began rolling this snow ball by approving private Orthodox conversions – and thus opening the way for all private conversions to demand recognition. Did the court have a choice? Its defenders will say that no, it didn’t have a choice. It begged the Knesset to legislate, but the politicians didn’t make the necessary decisions – so the void was ultimately filled by the court.


So, why is the government opposed to all private conversions being recognized? Why does it feel the need to circumvent the court? The government will make three basic arguments.


Rationale A: The court’s decision changes the religion and state status quo – and the people (represented by the Knesset) did not ask for such a change. That’s an argument that is part of an ongoing government campaign to change the habit of Israel’s Supreme Court to step on the legislature’s toes (more about this here).


Rationale B: The court’s decision could open the door to uncontrolled mass conversions of outsiders – foreign workers, tourists, Palestinians – that want to become Israeli citizens. That’s the main rationale of those politicians who want to support the law, without seeming anti-Reform/Conservative.


Rationale C: The court’s decision would open the door to the recognition of Reform and Conservative (and liberal Orthodox) conversions by the state. For the Haredi parties this is the main motivation to push the circumventing law forward.


Let’s deal with these three rationales one by one.


First – the status quo. The government is right to argue that no legislation means the acceptance of a changed status quo. But it is somewhat insincere in its refusal to acknowledge that passing a law also changes the status quo, just in a different way. In other words: the status quo is dead no matter what. The court killed it, and there is no way back.


Second – The fear of mass conversions. No truth there. This argument is a vicious and unjust attack on the motivation, the character, and the practices of Conservative, Reform, and liberal Orthodox rabbis in Israel. These people – and I know dozens, if not hundreds, of them – have no intention to serve as an entry gate for mass conversions of foreign workers and illegal immigrants.


Besides, giving the rabbinate the authority to be the sole body with a license to convert is hardly the only path to prevent mass conversions of unwanted people (assuming there is such a thing as unwanted converts). The other converting bodies would gladly accept official recognition of their processes in exchange for meeting a certain bureaucratic standard dictated by the state. A non-rabbinic official – say, someone in the Attorney General’s office – can set a standard that all conversions must meet. Problem of mass conversions solved.


Third – Rationale C, opening the door to the recognition of Reform and Conservative (and liberal Orthodox) conversions by the state. This rationale has merit. If the law doesn’t pass, the door will soon be opened. Some people believe that this would destroy Israel’s true character as a Jewish State. Other people believe that this would much improve Israel as a Jewish State – as it would make room for more than one version of Jewishness.


Note that there is an ideological dimension to this battle. The Haredi parties truly abhor the idea of Reform conversions being recognized by Israel. But there is also a political dimension to this battle, one that should not be ignored. The rabbinate is an institution with power. The Haredis, who control the rabbinate, do not want to see its power diminished. Guarding against other conversions is guarding the Haredi turf.


Other parties to this debate are also fighting for power – not just ideology. Take, for example, the more liberal Orthodox rabbis who are now fighting for less rabbinate control and more opportunity for private conversions. Many of these rabbis would take the opposite side had they been the ones controlling the rabbinate (as at least one of them, rabbi David Stav, attempted and failed to do so).


Some of these rabbis are currently lobbying the government in an attempt to modify the proposed law. There’s great irony here: Zionist rabbis – historically the great supporters of the Chief Rabbinate – are lobbying against it. Non-Zionist Haredis – who have little respect for the State-mandated rabbinate – are lobbying for it. Why? The answer is power.


Should US Jews be concerned with this legislation? The short answer is no. It does not affect them in any way. This law deals with people who live in Israel and want to convert, not with people converting in other countries.


However, historically speaking, every attempt by the Israeli government to change the laws of conversion, or the definition of who is a Jew, has always been met with diaspora resistance. Why? Because they are rightly suspicious that when Israel tinkers with the law it is never to the benefit of the things they believe in; because there’s always a legal scholar who makes the argument that the new law will eventually change the status of Diaspora conversions; because one never knows how the courts will interpret the new legislation; because the movements of progressive Judaism in the US are supportive of their small sister movements in Israel; because more power for the Orthodox authorities seems like a step backward in Israel’s religion and state affairs.


Jerry Silverman, chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America, argued that “the proposed bill fundamentally changes the status quo of conversions in Israel and casts a shadow over conversions undertaken in the Diaspora.” A “shadow” is a good metaphor for describing a law that most likely has no direct implication on US Jews. For the leadership of US Jews, this issue – like the issue of the Kotel – is no less about symbolism than about substance.


By the way, historically speaking, in all previous conversion crises, Diaspora leaders were able to win. See, for example, what happened just a few years ago with the Rotem Bill conversion crisis. Israelis thought it was all about them. Diaspora Jews disagreed, protested, and made the Prime Minister shelve the bill.


Is the current law going to pass? There is a fair chance that it will not pass – not in its current form. First – because there are powerful political forces working against it, among them rabbis associated with The Jewish Home Party and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (whose constituency includes Russians who might want to convert). Also in opposition are Knesset Members that were taken aback by the harsh response of US Jews to the two decisions made last Sunday. The meeting of coalition leaders on Friday might be another sign that the law is likely to end up the way previous laws did – shelved by a committee.


Netanyahu sees more than one reason to worry about this law. It is not completely impossible to see a scenario that leads to the collapse of the government because of this law. The Haredi parties seem less likely to cave on this legislation than on the Kotel issue. But we will have to wait and see how they react if postponement is required.


What can the government do? The answer concerning the Kotel is simple: go back to the compromise, and tell the Haredi parties there’s no other choice. The answer on conversion is more complicated, because there is nowhere to go back to (because of the court’s decision).


So, this law is Netanyahu’s real moment of truth. And if you are not blind to Israel’s political reality, you will not underestimate the complexity of the decision the Prime Minister faces. From Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the late Seventies to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today, the bond between the Likud Party and the Haredi parties has been strong. The gain for both is significant. Ditching this bond is neither a simple task nor a simple choice for a political leader.


Several Israelis that defended Netanyahu’s decisions have asked me in recent days: is the Kotel compromise important enough to hold new elections because of it? My response to them was that this is not the real question. The real question ought to be: is the unity of the Jewish people important enough to hold new elections because of it? Ask the right question, and your answer might change.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

Are We Going to Stop for Lunch?

So far, the American Jewish community has been exceptional in its support for Israel. But there is a long road ahead, and the question remains: will we continue with this support?

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.