BICOM Analysis: Israel’s Conversion Row in Context

Key points

  • Political tensions flared in Israel recently over a proposed bill which would place the Jewish conversion process in Israel under the legal control of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. This exposed the struggle in Israel and Jewish communities around the world over the legitimacy of different streams of Judaism and difficult questions about the nature of Israel as a Jewish state.
  • Concerned not to create a rift within his coalition, and between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, Prime Minister Netanyahu halted the progress of the bill being promoted by his Shas and Yisrael Beitenu coalition partners.
  • Whilst conversion was the cause of the recent row, the subsequent political fallout was an indication of broader tensions within the coalition. These tensions are likely to return as the government addresses divisive issues on the peace process in the coming months.

Introduction: What is the background to the recent row?

A proposed bill to reform the existing Jewish conversion process and its legal status in Israel sparked a political row in the last few weeks. The issue of converting to Judaism in Israel is more than an internal dispute between religious groups over interpretations of Jewish law. This issue has become a political ‘hot potato’, exposing strains within the governing coalition in Israel and igniting strong reactions from Jews around the world.

Since Israel’s establishment as a Jewish state in 1948, a tension has existed between the largely secular vision of the Jewish state, held by the mainstream Zionist leaders, and the desire of the ultra-Orthodox, or ‘Haredi’ minority in Israel to see strict observance of Jewish religious law.

Prior to the establishment of the state, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, reached what is known as the ‘status quo agreement’ with Haredi leaders. The ultra-Orthodox Rabbis agreed to support the establishment of the state in return for concessions in a number of specific areas. These included placing control of Jewish marriages and burials under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, a state institution dominated by Haredi rabbis. Though civil marriages conducted outside Israel are recognised by Israeli law, there are no civil marriages conducted in Israel. All marriages in Israel are according to religious authorities, whether they by Jewish, Christian or Muslim.

According to the Israeli Law of Return, any individual is eligible for citizenship if they have at least one Jewish grandparent or a Jewish spouse. However, at present, over 300,000 Israeli citizens are Jewish in the eyes of the state, but not recognised as Jewish according to Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. Many of these people immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet countries in the 1990s. They cannot be married by a rabbi or buried in a Jewish cemetery because they are not considered Jews according to the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical establishment. The stories of immigrant IDF soldiers, killed during military service, who must be buried in the non-Jewish section of military cemeteries, are especially emotive illustrations of the problem.

Because of this problematic situation, many immigrants are looking for options to undergo a recognised process of conversion to become Jewish according to the religious authorities. Orthodox Jewish authorities place strict demands of religious practice on those undergoing conversion. The Chief Rabbinate however, does not recognise conversions conducted under the auspices of less stringent, liberal streams of Judaism, such as the ‘Reform’ or ‘Conservative’ movements.

Efforts to find a solution to this problem are not new. The 1998 Ne’eman Commission decided that a conversion institute would be established by members of the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements jointly. Teachers would come from all three streams, but the actual conversion would be left to the Orthodox courts. A conversion authority was established in Israel along these lines under a respected Orthodox Rabbi, but never really had the full support of Chief Rabbinate. Only a few thousand people have been converted through the process, and some ultra-Orthodox rabbis have not accepted the conversions, or retroactively annulled them.

What is the recently proposed conversion bill?

A draft bill presented recently by Yisrael Beitenu MK David Rotem, again sought to ease the conversion process. Yisrael Beitenu has made conversion reform one of the key issues of its political platform. The party, with its large Russian-speaking constituency, seeks a “user-friendly” conversion process.

Rotem proposed setting up local conversion courts around Israel under the authority of the Chief Rabbis in each city. This would potentially ease the conversion procedure by opening the possibility for a wider range of religious-Zionist and modern-Orthodox rabbis to perform recognised conversions. However, to gain support for the bill from Haredi parties in the coalition, Rotem accepted a number of controversial amendments, including one which gave the Chief Rabbinate the legal authority to approve the local rabbis participating in the plan.

Why has the bill become so controversial?

The proposals created an outcry in Israel and the wider Jewish world. A number of issues caused concern to non-Orthodox Jewish leaders, in particular the attempt to enshrine in law the Chief Rabbinate’s control of conversions in Israel.

The discussion surrounding the issue of conversion is as much about identity and cultural pluralism as it is about internal religious debates. Like any religion, Judaism has a variety of differing streams. Deep differences exist between these groups on their interpretation of Jewish belief and practice. Ultra-Orthodox Jews do not recognise the legitimacy of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, which do not apply the same strict demands on the interpretation and observance of Jewish law. The issue of conversion is of particular importance because it defines who is legally and religiously recognised as a Jew.

In recent years, Israeli High Court rulings have granted increasing legitimacy to non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and their conversions in Israel. Leaders of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism fear the bill threatens to reverse that process by enshrining in law the sole authority of the Chief Rabbinate over conversions. Reform and Conservative communities feel that the special status of Orthodox Judaism in Israel is divisive and that their streams of Judaism are being delegitimized. They want to see Israel more open to a diverse range of Jewish practices and beliefs. The ultra-Orthodox parties argue that they are preserving the unity of the Jewish people, by establishing a single authority that determines Jewish religious status in Israel.

Whilst most Jews in Israel are secular, those that are observant tend to identify with Orthodoxy. However, in the Diaspora, particularly in the United States, non-Orthodox groups are a clear majority.  After the bill became public, non-Orthodox movements and leading Jewish organisations both in Israel and the Diaspora strongly objected. There was a major campaign within Israel and the United States to pressure Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop the bill.

What were the political ramifications of the bill?

The approval of the bill for first reading by a Knesset committee on 12 July triggered clashes between coalition members. Labor, the centre-left party within the governing coalition, fervently opposed the bill in committee. After the committee vote, Netanyahu came out against the bill, claiming that it would create a ‘rift‘ amongst the Jewish people, and stated that the bill would not be brought to a vote in the Knesset.

Netanyahu’s intervention against the bill reflects the high value he places on the political support of America’s Jewish community and his desire to avoid anything that will jeopardise the stability of his coalition. But Netanyahu’s decision exposed strains in his relationship with his hawkish Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beitenu party introduced the bill. For several months, the two have been divided over the handling of Israel’s foreign policy, from which Lieberman has been isolated, the appointment of a new Israeli ambassador to the UN and budgetary issues. In an attempt to resolve these tensions, the two met on 19 July and in separate statements tried to convey a message of business-as-usual. Lieberman said “there is no crisis and there is no intention to leave the government,” and Netanyahu positively responded, saying, “Yisrael Beitenu is a central and important partner.”

A few days later Netanyahu announced a temporary compromise which shelves the law for six months. During that period, non-Orthodox Jewish groups will also halt actions to block the bill through the High Court. In the meantime, a committee led by the chairman of the Jewish Agency, former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, will work with the Reform and Conservative movements to draft an alternative to the current proposals. Although this will satisfy those who object to the bill, key figures in Shas threatened to leave the coalition if the bill was not passed soon.

The harmonious statements after the Netanyahu-Lieberman meeting notwithstanding, the two are still deeply divided over key issues. Lieberman disputes the prime minister’s conviction that relations with the US are of utmost importance, is highly sceptical of Netanyahu’s negotiations policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians and continues to reject Egypt’s key role in the region. Neither has an interest in allowing the coalition crisis to escalate further at the present time. However, Netanyahu will be aware as his government reaches the halfway point of its term at the end of the year, that coalition partners will gradually become more unsettled.

Disagreements over negotiations with the Palestinians and how to handle the end of the settlement moratorium in September will further strain relations between different members of Netanyahu’s government. In this context, the prime minister is likely to seek, for the sake of his coalition’s stability, to avoid sensitive issues like conversion reform and try to maintain the imperfect status quo.