New Government-backed Conversion Bill Targets the Orthodox, not the Reform

Legislation at the heart of the flareup in IsraelDiaspora tensions will affect almost no one. So why is everyone so upset?

By Haviv Rettig Gur
Posted with permission from The Times of Israel

American Jews are protesting two moves taken by the Israeli cabinet on Sunday: the cancellation of a Western Wall agreement, and the advancing of a new bill on conversion.

Much of the energy in the protests by American Jewish leaders has focused on the Western Wall. The reason is simple: It’s a real-world symbol of attachment to the land of Israel, and the agreement’s surprise cancellation is a hard, clear stab in the back. To Americans, agreements are sacred. If compromises can be canceled willy-nilly, why make the sacrifices required to reach them in the first place?

But the Wall controversy is, at the end of the day, about a symbol, however potent. It is in the conversion bill where the rubber hits the road in official Israel’s acceptance or rejection of American Jewish religion and identity. It is here where Haredi lawmakers seek to legislate the first clear rejection of “Reform” Judaism – what these lawmakers call “Reform” includes no small amount of Conservative and Orthodox – into Israel’s law books. It is no accident that Tzohar, an Israeli modern-Orthodox organization that unites the chief rabbis of many cities and towns around the country, is on the “Reform” side of the debate.

On paper, the bill does very little. It says nothing at all about overseas conversions. It has nothing to do with conversions in Israel by Israeli citizens, including the hundreds of thousands of family members of Jews who are not themselves halachically Jewish. And it doesn’t concern non-citizens in Israel who seek to convert in the official state rabbinate framework.

Who’s left? Only these: non-citizens living in Israel for an extended period who obtain Jewish conversions from private conversion courts.

That’s not a lot of people, to put it mildly: tourists, perhaps African migrants, and very few others. Official figures, which are imperfect by virtue of the simple fact that these are conversions carried out beyond the scope of government agencies, estimate the figure in the very low dozens each year, if not in the single digits.

Furthermore, there are many Israeli officials who support the bill for reasons that have nothing to do with Haredi culture wars or Reform views on halacha. In Israel, conversion by a non-citizen is not just a religious act, but confers on the individual the right to obtain citizenship. While Reform and Haredi leaders seem to think the bill is about them, about the battle for religious liberty or against heresy (respectively), many Israeli officials back the bill for a simpler reason: any process that confers automatic citizenship on a person, they feel, should be carried out under the auspices of the state.

The bill’s own explanatory preface, from the draft version released on June 22, puts this argument above all others. “Given the significant ramifications of conversion in Israel vis-à-vis civil standing; out of consideration for appropriate public order [in Hebrew the term ‘public order’ is often used to mean a clear legal and bureaucratic order]; the need for close state oversight of an issue of such high public importance; the desire to prevent splintering the status [of Jews by making some eligible for citizenship and some not] and thus dividing the nation – the bill establishes that a conversion in Israel that has the power to confer rights, among them the rights granted under the Law of Return, is a conversion done under sponsorship of the state only, as opposed to conversion in various private frameworks that are not arranged and overseen [by the state].”

And, finally, there is the simpler point of the current status quo. The Neeman Commission, appointed in June 1997 and headed by then-minister of finance Yaakov Neeman, established today’s policy: To wit, only Orthodox state institutions may carry out the conversions, but a shared Reform-Conservative-Orthodox education system would teach and prepare the converts. Thus are satisfied the state’s demand for oversight over what is not an exclusively religious act, but also a naturalization process, as well as the halachic demands of the Orthodox and the demand for recognition by the Reform and Conservative.

The biggest compromise here, of course, came from the liberal streams, but the leaders of Reform and Conservative Jewry explained this to their constituencies in the late 1990s as a sacrifice made for the sake of Jewish unity.

It is vital to understand that the Neeman proposals essentially established two different standards for Israeli recognition of conversions. Inside Israel, conversion would work on the Neeman model, with the Orthodox state rabbinate in control of the bottleneck of actually carrying out the conversions. Outside Israel, in a policy established by several High Court of Justice rulings and government decisions over the years, any conversion carried out in a “recognized Jewish community” that the community itself accepts as a valid conversion would be recognized by the State of Israel.

Who does the “recognizing” of recognized communities? In most cases, the answer is the Jewish Agency, which is the closest institutional framework that can represent the Israeli state – roughly half the agency’s board is appointed by Israeli political parties approximately according to their size in the Knesset – and is also present in hundreds of communities throughout the Jewish world.

So what happened? How would a conversion bill that would actually affect exceedingly few people threaten these longstanding compromises?

The answer lies in the party that was left out of the Neeman compromise, but only realized that fact very recently: Israel’s Modern Orthodox.

The Israeli side of the compromise, the Neeman framework, gives final say on a conversion to the ultra-Orthodox who control the Chief Rabbinate. The Diaspora side confers state recognition to all movements recognized by, well, themselves. After all, what does it mean for the Jewish Agency to recognize you? The Jewish Agency’s ecumenicism is borne out by the rest of its board beyond the Israeli political parties: the umbrella fundraising federations and organizations from around the world (through representatives from JFNA and Keren Hayesod), and direct representatives of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform religious streams themselves.

Israel’s Modern Orthodox, who often refer to themselves as dati leumi, or national-religious, do not fall under the broadminded openness granted overseas, because they don’t live overseas, nor under the exceedingly (and increasingly) restrictive standards imposed by the Haredim within Israel.

And so, ironically, it is not the Reform or Conservative movements who threaten to topple the Neeman status quo, but these Modern Orthodox. Despairing of what they see as the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s overly restrictive demands for converts – including those who are already citizens (thanks to the Law of Return, which confers citizenship on anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent), and so cannot be suspected of seeking to become Jews just to obtain an Israeli passport – the group of Orthodox rabbis organized under the Tzohar organization has convened its own conversion courts and begun converting individuals in Israel outside the auspices of state institutions.

The state, of course, refused to recognize these “unsupervised” conversions when it came to granting citizenship. The rabbinate, which correctly viewed these conversions as direct challenges to its religious hegemony, refused to recognize them for the purposes of marriage, divorce or burial.

The issue reached the High Court of Justice, which gave its ruling on March 31, 2016. The Law of Return, the court said, applied to anyone who was residing in Israel legally and had converted in a recognized Jewish community that was Orthodox. (This was not a statement against Reform conversions, but reflected the Court’s preference for limiting its rulings to the context of each case.)

That is, the court applied to the private conversion courts in Israel the standards for recognizing conversions overseas.

This is the essence of justice: universal applicability. It is not surprising that Supreme Court justices have a hard time sustaining two wholly different standards of state recognition, nor surprising that the attempt to maintain two different standards inevitably results in them bleeding into each other.

The court explained that the government was never given the authority to make the distinction between state and private Orthodox conversions in Israel when it came to granting citizenship, and that only Knesset legislation could give it that power.

And so the new conversion bill was born.

That is, it was not born from the fact that the state doesn’t recognize conversions carried out by the Israeli Reform movement. Non-recognition of Reform conversions in Israel is part of the Neeman agreement to which the Reform movement itself is a signatory.

It was born from the fact that the Haredi establishment has fought bitterly in the years since the Neeman Commission to push out of the official state bodies the very Modern Orthodox who once, in the days of the Neeman debates, saw themselves as part of a single unified “Orthodox” side to the controversy.

The upshot is that on paper, Haredi lawmakers are right when they say they’re merely seeking to codify the agreed-upon Neeman compromise in legislation to protect it against court challenges.

But the social and political context has changed. Neeman only works when the rabbinate, which is given the monopoly to convert, plays ball with the broader system of education and preparation run by a cross-section of religious movements. When the judges in the state conversion courts no longer accept converts trained by that system, the compromise becomes a straitjacket for everyone else.

In talks held between Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Tzohar founder Rabbi David Stav and Reform representatives on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Reform representatives were told that the bill does not actually reject their conversions. Their converts, as always, will be registered as Jews in the Interior Ministry’s population registry – and, as always, will emphatically not be registered as Jews in the rabbinate. That it would deny recognition also for the purposes of citizenship is hardly significant for the Reform, since the denial of citizenship to their private conversions was already the agreed-upon status quo.

Some Israeli Reform officials were satisfied with that answer, according to sources. But American Jewish leaders are not.

Steven Nasatir, the long-time head of the Chicago Jewish federation and one of the most influential and pro-Israel leaders in the American Jewish federation world, told The Times of Israel’s Raphael Ahren this week that “the federation in Chicago will not be hosting any member of Knesset that votes for this bill. None. They will not be welcome in our community.”

He added: “We’re past the time when we’re standing and applauding and being nice because they’re members of Knesset or because they hold this position or that position. People who don’t have the understanding of what this bill means to the Jewish people – God bless ’em, but they’re not welcome in our community, period.”

What bothers them about the bill? Are they worried about Tzohar’s status? Why protest so vociferously against legislation that only codifies the already-existing compromise?

The answer lies in the stark difference between government decisions and Knesset legislation, and with the sheer scale of the compromise and sacrifice American Jewish leaders believe they made 20 years ago in the Neeman agreement.

It’s one thing to agree to an unfair but nevertheless negotiated compromise for the sake of Jewish unity. It’s quite another for the parliament of Israel, in a majority vote for a government-backed bill (backing was granted officially in the Sunday vote), to declare for the first time, even if only in a limited way, that the Haredi rabbinate now polices the most fundamental promise made by the State of Israel to the world’s Jews: the right of return, the assurance that Israel belongs to them too.

Israeli officials, including the prime minister, were understandably surprised by the fury of American Jewry in recent days. It is even true that many Israeli Reform leaders were surprised. Most do not grasp, even now, some of the most fundamental assumptions that underlie the American Jewish relationship with Israel.

As long as the American Jewish voice remains a dormant spectator in the Israeli debates on Jewish identity, that’s not likely to change.