Ultimately, converts will be the losers

By Seth Farber, July 22, 2010

Whatever happens in the end to the conversion law, the real losers are the potential converts. Neither the bill - which was proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu in an effort to ease the road for converts in Israel - or the virulent response of the North American Jewish community, which tried to kill the bill, was going to significantly improve the chaos that has characterised conversion in Israel for the past decade.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, 313,000 immigrants who made aliyah under the law of return are not Jewish according to Orthodox halachah. These individuals cannot marry in Israel, and, in most cases, are buried "outside the fence".

Since 1995, special rabbinical courts operating under the aegis of the Prime Minister's Office have been responsible for conversion. In 2009, the 34 active judges converted just 1,800 immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. Rather than seeking to reform the highly inefficient authority, Mr Lieberman sought to bypass it by allowing municipal rabbis to engage in conversion. In theory, this would allow for easier access.

In return, Yisrael Beiteinu agreed to the rabbinate's demand to anchor in law the right of the chief rabbinate to oversee all conversions, incensing the non-Orthodox denominations. Since conversion has never been legislated on in Israel, the denominations have been able to succeed - through Supreme Court decisions of 1988 and 2002 - in having their conversions registered in the population registry. The proposed bill threatens to undermine these gains, as the court may in the future defer all matters of conversion to the chief rabbinate, thus delegitimising the non-Orthodox.

But the truth needs to be told. Neither side is blameless. Yisrael Beiteinu was willing to give the rabbinate ultimate authority over conversions, even if it offended American Jewry. Moreover, given all municipal rabbis are appointed by the chief rabbinate, it is unlikely that decentralising conversion would change things. Essentially, the responsibility for conversion is being handed from the Chief Rabbi right back to... the Chief Rabbi.

In order to stop the bill, the American community was willing to maintain the ineffective conversion authority's monopoly. For the American leadership, the potential damage far outweighed the small gains.

With all the positioning, negotiating, threats and concessions, someone was forgotten. As of now, the converts remain out in the cold.

Rabbi Seth Farber is the director of the Jewish Life Information Centre

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010