EDITORIAL | Knesset bill under considerATION New Conversion Bill Threatens Jewish Unity


The Diaspora is not pleased, and for good reason. At issue is a conversion bill that has recently been debated in the Knesset. Initially defeated last week, the dialogue continues in committee and it is the subject of great controversy worldwide. From our perspective, some sections are benign, one is highly questionable, and another is the lightning rod that threatens relations in the Jewish world.


The importance of this bill is evident by the many organizations who have spoken up against it. The Jewish Federations of North America, the Reform and Conservative movements, and the Jewish Agency, responsible for Israel’s relations with the Diaspora and headed by Natan Sharansky, have all spoken out against the proposed law in its current form.

Two parts of the bill seem to be an improvement over the status quo. One would allow Israeli municipal rabbis — those accorded authority over a city or region — the ability to grant conversions. This is an expansion over current law, which limits that authority to rabbinical court judges. Though the religious right in Israel is engaged in infighting regarding this provision that threatens its tenuous coaltion, it would allow for more rabbis to be available to perform conversions (and some municipal rabbis, being Modern Orthodox, may be more flexible in their standards than the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical court judges). We think this is a good thing.

A second part is also useful, limiting the authority to void already-granted conversions to the Chief Rabbinate The rabbinical courts have undone myriad conversions for a number of reasons, but if a conversion has indeed been granted and citizenship gained, then it makes perfect sense that it should take a higher authority to undo the conversion. Again, we support this change.

But two other provisions under consideration seem to undermine the Law of Return, which since 1950 has allowed Jews to become Israeli citizens. Currently under the Law, as later amended, those with Jewish mothers or who converted to Judaism, and those who are children or grandchildren of Jews, are accorded the right to return. Conversions within Israel are only authorized pursuant to Orthodox standards; outside Israel, those granted under the Reform and Conservative movements have also been deemed acceptable.

One of the onerous portions would give the Chief Rabbinate authority over decisions pertaining to the Law of Return. The concern here is that the Chief Rabbinate could, in its discretion, act in such a way as to de facto amend the Law of Return to make it harder or impossible for non-Orthodox conversions to occur.

The other distressing portion of the bill would deny conversion in Israel to those who visited Israel as a non-Jew or lived there without having “new immigrant” status. This provision would create bizarre situations–it would (at least unless the Chief Rabbinate opines otherwise) continue to allow conversions granted in the Diaspora by those who have never visited Israel, but would prevent those who have from coverting later in Israel.

In essence, the law’s dubious provisions seem to drive a wedge between different “kinds” of Jews. This undercurrent is nothing new. In the late 1980s, some in positions of rabbinical authority sought to require that any conversion outside Israel be according to halacha, or strict Jewish law. This is essentially the same standard as is required for conversions that occur within Israel. However, at the time there was a huge outcry from the Diaspora, most notably from Reform and Conservative movements, and the status quo was retained.

What makes the provisions at issue so distressing is the fear that this could be the first slide down a slippery slope, with the potential for future erosion of the Law of Return. By giving the Chief Rabbinate more authority, and by distinguishing between Jews-by-choice and those who are Jews by descent, the concern is that some Jews are being treated differently, and less fairly, than others.

Moreover, because of the historical conflicts regarding conversions, there is a legitimate belief shared by many in the Diaspora that, as the Union for Reform Judaism stated, “it may lead to the delegitimization of all non-Orthodox conversions performed outside of the State of Israel.”

MK Rabbi David Rotem, who introduced the measure, has indicated that the bill will be studied in the Knesset’s law committee and will not come back to the plenum until after Passover. We trust that cooler and more unifying forces will prevail, and that the offending provisions will be stricken. Otherwise, the peril of pitting factions within the Jewish world against one another looms large.