Political crisis looms as Haredim fight proposed conversion law
Former Minister Moshe Nissim presents Prime Minister Netanyahu with conclusions of special committee recommending creation of new conversion authority that would no longer be subject to Israel's Chief Rabbinate and recognition of liberal conversions performed abroad; ultra-Orthodox parties outraged, threaten to veto legislation.
The main recommendation is to create a new conversion authority that would be committed to Jewish Law but won’t be linked to Israel's Chief Rabbinate.
Netanyahu thanked Nissim for his work and said he would "continue working to find solutions that would strengthen the unity among the Jewish people in Israel and in the Diaspora."
The proposal was met with angry reactions from the ultra-Orthodox parties and Israel's chief rabbis.
Nissim said during a press conference, "All nations of the world, including all the great empires, and the Jewish people—despite the inquisitions and the destruction and everything they went through in all the generations—are not only going strong but have returned to their land and built their own national home.
"There is only one explanation: The ban on mixed marriage. Mixes marriage is a poisonous drug for the Jewish people. Unfortunately, we have been suffering in recent generations from a situation which I can only define as a spiritual holocaust. The assimilation rate in the Jewish Diaspora is over 70 percent. Instead of maintaining its existence and growing, the Jewish people are diminishing."
The Nissim plan is the product of a compromise between the Orthodox religious establishment and the liberal streams, following the conversion crisis that broke out about a year ago, when the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a proposal to enforce the status of the state conversion system, which had operated until then as a unit in the Prime Minister's Office without any legal regulation.
The goal of the original law, which was encourage by the Haredim, was to prevent any future recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions by the High Court, as part of a pending petition. The world Jewry, which is mostly affiliated with the liberal streams, was furious, prompting Netanyahu to shelve the law and appoint a committee to look into the issue.
The committee's report includes a recommendation to soften the law: State conversion would remain Orthodox and would be performed according to Jewish law, but would no longer be in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate. On the other hand, liberal conversions performed abroad would be recognized in Israel under the Law of Return.
The recommendations infuriated the Haredi parties. Yated Ne'eman, the mouthpiece of United Torah Judaism's Lithuanian faction, wrote on Friday that the Nissim report was "even more dangerous than the previous situation," arguing that most of the people who appeared before "the one-man committee" were "Reform and Conservative Jews or people with a 'rabbinical' role from organizations and bodies with a compromising and dangerous agenda."
Knesset Member Moshe Gafni said, "The document tries to satisfy everyone, and satisfying everyone means compromising on fundamental issues."
MK Yakov Asher stated, "We will strongly oppose any decision harming the status quo and the Jewish people's wholeness."
According to estimates in the political system, the Haredi parties won't settle for thwarting the suggested law, but will demand a more conservative, one-sided plan which will lead to creation of a new conversion authority that will be subject to the Chief Rabbinate.
They are concerned that if no legislation is advanced on the issue, the High Court will soon rule on the liberal movements' petition. Conversion officials believe that a ruling has already been prepared and that it recognizes the Reform and Conservative conversions for civilian matters, as the court ruled about two years ago on private Orthodox conversions.
Chief rabbi: New bill encourages assimilation
Meanwhile, Israel's chief rabbis presented a united front against the new proposal. "It encourages assimilation," Chief Rabbi David Lau said during an emergency meeting. "It's a window to bringing the destruction of Judaism around the world to the Holy Land. They are deluding people that we are solving a problem here, but it's the exact opposite."
Addressing the proposal to create an independent system, Rabbi Lau clarified: "The Chief Rabbinate has been making a great effort all these years to ensure that this won't happen, and this document is basically inviting (Assimilation). The people of Israel can't accept such a reality for a single moment."
The meeting was attended by city rabbis, religious judges and prominent yeshiva heads affiliated with the conservative stream of Religious Zionism.
Israel's chief Sephardic rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, called on "all of Israel's rabbis, of all circles," to "stand guard," saying that "there is a recognition here of conversions not according to Jewish Law, and there is a recognition of Reform conversions. It's a very serious breach. I ask all the rabbis to sign and join the protest and bury this law. This law isn't worthy of being discussed."
At the end of the meeting, the participants—led by the chief rabbis—published a manifesto reading: "We, Israel's rabbis, are concerned about the danger to the Jewish people's unity as a result of the proposals for a conversion reform which excludes the Chief Rabbinate and recognizes Reform and Conservative conversions.
"We, as Israel's rabbis, demand that the state recognize conversions performed exclusively according to the Chief Rabbinate's orders and under its authority. We call on the prime minister to reject the Nissim Committee's report and immediately advance legislation that will stop the High Court's attempts to recognize private conversions and Reform conversions."
The rabbis concluded by appealing to "all Knesset members and all ministers to do everything in their power to stop the conversion reform which may lead to assimilation and to a rift within the Jewish people, like the situation taking place, unfortunately, in many Reform and Conservative communities worldwide."