The Conversion Crisis:
The Current Debate on Religion, State and Conversion in Israel

Introduction
Pre-State Jewish Life
Creation of the State of Israel
Testing the Principals
The Conversion Crisis
1995 - Present
Future Challenges


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The Conversion Crisis 1995 - Present
  1. Non-Orthodox Conversions in Israel:
    -- The Goldstein Case
  2. The Conversion Bill
  3. The Ne'eman Committee
  4. The 'Technical' Proposal
     

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Non-Orthodox Conversions in Israel:
-- The Goldstein Case:

The precursor to today's "conversion crisis" was a November 1995 Supreme Court decision in the Goldstein case on recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel. Hava (or Eliyani or Elaine) Goldstein, a native of Brazil, emigrated to Israel in 1990 and converted to Judaism under Reform auspices in Israel a year later. She married a Jewish, Brazilian-born Israeli in a civil ceremony outside Israel. Goldstein applied for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return and sought to register as a Jew with the Ministry of Interior. Since Goldstein could not produce a conversion certificate from the Rabbinate, her request for registration was denied. The Court decided that the Interior Ministry's request for a conversion certificate from the Rabbinate had no basis in Israeli law. The Ministry of Interior was given six months to register Goldstein as a Jew.

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"I do not believe that this issue can be resolved through litigation or legislation. We would rather have neither. What we need is an agreement among religious leaders
of all the parties involved...."
Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu
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The Goldstein decision was hailed by Reform and Conservative leaders as de facto official state recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel.

Recognizing the implications of their decision, the justices refused to comment on the validity of non-Orthodox conversions or their legitimacy in Israel. Noting that previous Supreme Court decisions (most notably "Miller") had clarified the matter of conversions performed outside of Israel and other related issues, the Court directed the Knesset to clarify the guidelines for conversions performed in Israel. Should the Knesset fail to establish such guidelines, specifically regarding state recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel, the responsibility would fall to the Court in future cases.

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The Conversion Bill:
Almost immediately, political forces mobilized to initiate legislation further clarifying state-recognized conversions performed in Israel. The Reform and Conservative leadership looked to the Labor government under Shimon Peres to promote legislation recognizing non-Orthodox conversions in Israel. However, these hopes were soon disappointed when Interior Minister Haim Ramon told a delegation of American Reform rabbis that he would not support the registration of Goldstein as a Jew both as a matter of principle and of political survival. In turn, the Orthodox parties sought to introduce legislation which would codify the State of Israel's long-standing, de facto practice of nonrecognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel. Orthodox leaders in Israel expressed the fear that were such legislation not passed, the Conservative and Reform movements would gain recognition for their conversions performed in Israel through the judiciary.

Following the May 1996 election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a coalition agreement with the National Religious Party and Shas in which the new Likud government agreed "the law of conversion shall be changed so that conversions to Judaism in Israel will be recognized only if authorized by the Chief Rabbinate." News of the agreement was greeted with great concern in the Diaspora, with the Reform and Conservative movements vowing to fight any legislative move that would take away the recognition for conversions performed under their auspices which they had earned in the courts. In response, Prime Minister Netanyahu pledged that any legislation would only deny state recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel. Non-Orthodox conversions performed outside of Israel would continue to be recognized by the State of Israel according to the Law of Return and the "Miller precedent."

The initial bill proposed by Shas in October 1996 went far beyond the one detailed in the coalition agreement. Instead the bill banned state recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed both in Israel and the Diaspora, stating, "there shall be no legal validity whatsoever to a conversion unless it receives the approval of the highest religious court in Israel of the religion to which the aforementioned wishes to join." In March 1997, the Cabinet formally approved a more limited legislation, mirroring that of the coalition agreement, denying state recognition to non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel only. This legislation passed its first reading in April.

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 The Ne'eman Committee:
As the Knesset prepared for the bill's second and third reading in June, the government sought a compromise setting guidelines for non-Orthodox conversions whereby (ideally) there would be no need for Orthodox parties to pursue the legislation while the Reform and Conservative movements would have no need to pursue judicial challenges.

Prime Minister Netanyahu created a committee chaired by Yaakov Ne'eman, a respected lawyer (who was appointed Finance Minister one month later), bringing together Orthodox, Reform and Conservative representatives to hammer out a solution. The Reform and Conservative movements agreed to temporarily suspend their court cases pending the recommendations of the Ne'eman Committee. (At this time, a number of cases were pending before the Supreme Court including a case petitioning for state recognition of children from the former Soviet Union who were adopted by nonreligious Israeli Jews, denied Orthodox conversions, were converted to Judaism under Conservative auspices in Israel and thus were denied state recognition as Jews, as well as a petition for the inclusion of Reform and Conservative representatives on local religious councils in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Kirat Tivon. Reform and Conservative movements agreed to suspend this judicial action if the Orthodox parties agreed to suspend action on a bill legislating the exclusion of Reform and Conservative representatives from serving on local religious councils.) Heralding the historic mission of the Ne'eman Committee, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared, "I do not believe that this issue can be resolved through litigation or legislation. We would rather have neither. What we need is an agreement among religious leaders of all the parties involved...."

Its deadline extended three times, the Ne'eman Committee met more than fifty times over the next seven months, and submitted its report to the Prime Minister in late January 1997. The Ne'eman Committee set as its goal a comprehensive solution to the matter of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel which would comply with Jewish law. Ne'eman himself has stated that he hopes this solution will enable the approximately 200,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union living in Israel to convert to Judaism if they so wish. According to press reports, the preamble of the proposal declares, "It is agreed by all parties that there must be a single, uniform, official conversion procedure that will be conducted in accordance with Jewish law and will be recognized by all segments of the Jewish people....The composition of the commission, which includes representatives of both the Reform and Conservative movements, reflects a desire for cooperation among all three major movements in Judaism and for Jewish unity."

The Committee proposed to create "conversion institutes," to prepare potential converts for conversion. The institutes would be sponsored by the Jewish Agency, and operated jointly by the three denominations. Aspiring converts would attend classes at the institutes but the actual conversion would be performed under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, according to Orthodox guidelines. With the establishment of these institutes, the Reform and Conservative movements would agree not to perform conversions outside the framework of the institutes.

The agreement brings benefits to all the involved parties. Under this proposal, every convert to Judaism in Israel would enjoy both state and Rabbinate recognition as a Jew. This convert would be free to officially immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return (even if the conversion was performed in Israel), to register with the Ministry of Interior as a Jew, marry, divorce and be buried in Israel as a Jew. The acceptance of this proposal would also mark the first time the State of Israel and the Rabbinate would officially recognize the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel in matters of personal status.

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 The 'Technical' Proposal:
Fearing that the Ne'eman Committee compromise would be rejected by the Rabbinate and the Ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset, Jewish Agency chairman Avraham Burg convened a meeting of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform representatives to work out an interim measure to prevent the reintroduction of the conversion bill in the Knesset. Over the course of a weekend the group arrived at a stop-gap measure meant to circumvent Orthodox and non-Orthodox sensitivities without mandating comprehensive solution.

Burg's plan calls for a replacement of the word "Jew" (in Hebrew "yehudi/a") in the identity cards of Israeli Jews, with the letter "yud" ("j"). Jews-from-birth would have the letter "yud" with the individual's date-of-birth. Jews-from-conversion, regardless of the type of conversion, would have the letter "yud" with the date of the individual's conversion stamped in their identity card.

This ambiguity pleases the Reform and Conservative movements by enabling individuals who convert under their auspices in Israel to receive identity cards nearly identical to those of other Israeli Jews.

Ultra-Orthodox parties would be satisfied since the non-Orthodox convert would not be designated as "Jew" ("Yehudi/a") but only as the letter "yud" ("j") which could stand for the word "Jew," or for the word Israeli ("Yisraeli/a"), or for any other word beginning with the letter "yud." Moreover, ultra-Orthodoxy sees no religious significance in the symbols of modern Israeli nationhood, with which it often finds itself in conflict, and thus has no problem with labeling converts as a separate designation on their identity cards.

In general, the "nationalist-Zionist" camp does not support this plan. For religious Zionists, the national and religious are intertwined. Designating converts on identity cards violates this ideology by creating different standards and classes for nationality and religion.

There are, however, many flaws to the plan. Individuals converting to Judaism under non-Orthodox auspices in Israel will still not be recognized as Jews by the Rabbinate, and thus will be barred from marrying, divorcing or being buried as Jews in Israel. Critics point out that the plan would officially label converts to Judaism, thus distinguishing them from other Israeli Jews and effectively creating two official categories of Jews.

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