Understanding the Conversion Crisis: A Timeline

7 Tammuz 5777

1 July 2017




Understanding the Conversion Crisis: A Timeline

With all due apologies, today’s blog is a complicated one which gets well down into the weeds.

As is the case with the egalitarian crisis at the Kotel, the current “conversion” crisis is widely misunderstood. Perhaps a contextual explanation as well as a timeline will clarify the convolutions that have taken place and where we stand.


The convoluted context:

From the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

“Acquisition of Nationality according to the Law of Return

The Law of Return (1950) grants every Jew, wherever he may be, the right to come to Israel as an oleh (a Jew immigrating to Israel) and become an Israeli citizen.

For the purposes of this Law, “Jew” means a person who was born of a Jewish mother, or has converted to Judaism and is not a member of another religion . . .

Since 1970, the right to immigrate under this law has been extended to include the child and the grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of the grandchild of a Jew.” 


The current situation:

Note that the above Law of Return does not elaborate on “converted to Judaism.”

Nevertheless, the State of Israel through its Interior Ministry does not recognize conversions performed by Reform rabbis, Conservative rabbis, or Orthodox rabbis belonging to Giyur Kahalacha.

This means, among many other things, that anyone converted by a rabbi from any one of the above groups cannot become a citizen of Israel through the Law of Return.

It also means that anyone converted by a rabbi from one of these groups cannot be married in a Jewish religious ceremony in Israel. This inability to marry in a religious ceremony can have profound effects on other facets of life such as the status of children.

This latter point about marriage is extremely important, especially insofar as Russian immigrants to Israel are concerned. At the moment, there are some 280,000 Russian-Israelis in Israel who qualified (or their parents qualified) as “Jewish” for purposes of immigrating here–but are not “Jewish” enough (in other words, their mothers were not Jewish) to get married in a marriage ceremony approved by the ultra-Orthodox Israeli Rabbinate.  The orthodox Giyur Kahalacha group mentioned above operates a private conversion court specifically designed to help these Russians.

To reiterate: according to the Law of Return and the Israeli Interior Ministry, it is possible for a person who has Jewishness in his or her family but whose mother is/was not Jewish to come here and become an Israeli citizen, but according to the Israel Interior Ministry, it is not possible for a person who was converted to Judaism by a Reform, Conservative, or Giyur rabbi to come here and become a citizen. 

And, according to the Interior Ministry, just because a person who has Jewishness in his or her family (but whose mother is/was not Jewish) has come here and become a citizen, that does not mean that he or she is Jewish according to halacha and therefore able to get married in a religious ceremony. 


The timeline of the current crisis:

1. The current conversion crisis was precipitated by the Reform, Conservative, and Giyur Movements that petitioned Israel’s High Court of Justice to allow non-orthodox conversions to be recognized by the state of Israel.

2. A ruling on their petition was expected by the High Court this coming week, and without any doubt the anti-Orthodox High Court was expected to rule in their favor.

3. Realizing this ruling was about to be handed down, the ultra Orthodox went on the offense and staged a preemptive strike.  They submitted a proposed law to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation last Sunday. That proposed law essentially stated that no conversion by a Reform Rabbi, Conservative Rabbi, or Orthodox Giyur rabbi would be recognized by the state of Israel. The only conversions that would be recognized were conversions performed under the direct supervision of the Orthodox Rabbinate.

4. That proposed law was overwhelmingly passed by the Committee with only one dissenter–Sofa Landver of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party (a party that represents Russian-Israelis), and was set to be sent to the Knesset–where it would have faced a long and rocky road to approval at best. Remember, that every proposed law must pass three readings–each of which in this case would have been the setting of intense and fierce debate. In short, the law was by no means assured of passage.

5. However, the sending of the bill to the Knesset was immediately stalled when Landver appealed the approval. According to parliamentary rules, if a member of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation appeals a decision made by the Committee, the proposed law must go to the full Cabinet for a vote, and be approved there before being sent to the Knesset.

6. Nevertheless, when the Ministerial Committee approved sending the proposed law to the Knesset, the Reform and Conservative Movements went wild if not berserk. In conjunction with the media here, they raised a hue and cry claiming that they were being discriminated against–and that the orthodox should not have a monopoly on conversions.

7. At this point, PM Netanyahu called an emergency meeting of his Cabinet for yesterday. Apparently he did so after making a secret compromise with the ultra-orthodox factions (Shas, United Torah Judaism) in his coalition.

8. That compromise is that the government, the Reform Movement, the Conservative Movement, and the Giyur Movement will all request that during the next six months, the High Court of Justice will not rule on the petition to allow non-orthodox conversions to be recognized by the state of Israel. In return, the Orthodox parties will “suspend” their legislation that was to be sent to the Knesset.

Also part of the agreement is that PM Netanyahu will appoint a committee headed by a retired judge to figure out how both sides can be accommodated. No proposed law will go to the Knesset until the committee comes forward with its findings and recommendations.

9. All of this was revealed at the emergency Cabinet meeting yesterday. However, fireworks quickly erupted at the meeting when Netanyahu surprisingly asked an aide to draft a letter detailing the “compromise” to American Jewish leaders. This infuriated Aryeh Deri, Israel’s Interior Minister and the head of Shas. He demanded that if the letter was going to be sent, he wanted a coalition agreement that the proposed orthodox law would be immediately sent to the Knesset should the High Court decide against granting the six month extension on making a decision and go ahead and rule in favor of the Reform, Conservative, and Giyur Movements.

When such assurance was not forthcoming, Deri as well as Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism (UTJ), stormed out of the meeting. UTJ was particularly harsh in its criticism of Netanyahu issuing an immediate statement that “The coalition has backtracked on explicit agreements and violated the coalition agreement.”

10. However, Deri and Gafni returned to the meeting shortly thereafter and managed to exact the promise that Deri demanded: to wit, if the High Court goes ahead and rules in favor of the Reform, Orthodox, and Giyur, the government will advance the proposed Orthodox law to the Knesset.

So that is where things stand this morning. 

The High Court has yet to announce whether it agrees to wait for six months to issue a ruling.

American Jewry continues to go berserk.

And Netanyahu has flown off to Germany to attend the funeral of Helmut Kohl–fervently hoping that he has succeeded in averting another government crisis by kicking the can down the road.





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