Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky has called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to oppose legislation being advanced by ultra-Orthodox parties which would give the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly on conversion, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Jerry Silverman, chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America, senior leaders from the Reform and Conservative movements were also highly critical of the proposed law and called for it to be withdrawn.
This crisis for Netanyahu comes as many global community leaders arrive in Israel for board meetings of the Jewish Agency next week to celebrate 50 years since Jerusalem’s reunification.
It appears that the conversion bill was covertly inserted onto the agenda of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday at the behest of the haredi political parties, to avoid drawing the ire of those leadership figures both in Israel and from the Diaspora.
The legislation has been formulated by the Interior Ministry at the direction of Interior Minister and Shas chairman Arye Deri. The proposal determines that only conversions performed by the State Conversion Authority under the guidance of the Chief Rabbinate will be recognized for the purposes of citizenship via the Law of Return and registering as Jewish in the Interior Ministry.
It would permanently prevent Reform, Conservative and some Orthodox converts – who converted in Israel and are not yet citizens – from obtaining citizenship under the Law of Return.
The bill would circumvent a ruling last year by the High Court of Justice that ordered the state to grant citizenship to converts who converted through non-state, Orthodox rabbinical courts.
It would also preemptively circumvent an expected ruling by the High Court on a similar case regarding the right of Reform and Conservative converts who are not citizens to obtain citizenship under the Law of Return.
It is thought likely that the court will rule to award such converts citizenship; the timing of the new legislation is likely an attempt to prevent such an eventuality.
“When the legislation was first submitted to the Knesset last month, Sharansky wrote an impassioned letter, seen by the Post, to Netanyahu arguing that it opposed Zionist principles and calling for a policy that would embrace rather than distance potential converts.
“We must recognize that Israel is in the midst of an historic and monumental process of ingathering the exiles, and that the Jewish people can and must open its gates to those who wish to become a part of it,” Sharansky wrote to the prime minister, adding that thousands more immigrants are and will come to Israel in coming years.
“It is a compelling Zionist priority to enable them to join the Jewish people in a warm and encouraging manner. We must find a way to embrace rather than repel, to include rather than exclude, to expand our ranks rather than shrink them, to open the gates rather than create obstacles,” the Jewish Agency chairman continued.
In his letter, Sharansky also called on Netanyahu to establish a public commission composed of representatives of all relevant organizations and governmental bodies to formulate the best policy for the State of Israel.
He implicitly referenced and praised the non-state, Orthodox rabbinical court Giyur Ka’halacha, which was established in 2015 and has thus far converted nearly 400 people.
It was thought that last year’s court ruling to grant citizenship to Orthodox converts who converted in independent rabbinical courts could eventually force the Chief Rabbinate to recognize such conversions for the purposes of marriage.
The new bill would thwart this process.
Silverman was also strongly critical of the legislation.
“The proposed bill fundamentally changes the status quo of conversions in Israel and casts a shadow over conversions undertaken in the Diaspora,” he said. “We strongly urge that this legislation not move forward.”
Rabbi Seth Farber, one of the founders of Giyur Ka’halacha and director of the ITIM religious services group, said the proposed law would only serve to further alienate Jews from Judaism, both in Israel and around the world.
“We call on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to act in the interest of justice in Israel, the community of immigrants and the Jewish community around the world to vote against this legislation,” said Farber.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform Movement in Israel, described the bill as a slap in the face to Jewish leaders arriving from abroad who will now be greeted with news of legislation opposed by many in their communities.
“More than any other prime minister in the history of the State of Israel, Bibi knows what the possible tragic outcome of legislation on conversion might be, and we expect him not to push the Jewish people once again into this massive controversy,” said Kariv.
“We believe he has the critical capacity and leadership qualities needed to draw a red line with his haredi partners on this issue…, and we will do whatever it takes to remind the government that the vast majority of Jews in Israel and abroad strongly oppose this legislation. And we expect the PM to serve the best interests of the entire Jewish people, and not of the hared parties which represent a small minority of the Jewish people.”
Yizhar Hess, director of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, called on Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman, Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett and Kulanu chairman Moshe Kahlon to prevent the bill from coming to a vote.
Referencing efforts by the haredi parties to also abolish the Western Wall agreement, which may come to a vote on Sunday, Hess said their activities “represent a stab in both eyes of Diaspora Jewry,” adding that “only a short-sighted government wants a blind Jewish people.”
The Prime Minister’s Office declined a request for comment.