More Details on Israel's Conversion Bill (Plus a Primer on Israeli Politics)

Beth Jacob’s Rabbi Morris Allen published a guest post yesterday, concerning a new conversion bill currently making its way through the Knesset (the Israeli parliament).

This bill has been playing out in some very interesting ways in the Knesset for a while now, and I wanted to provide some more details and context around it, for anyone who’s a political junkie for that sort of thing (anyone who’s not a political junkie may want to run screaming now…. don’t say you weren’t warned!)

The Knesset

So first a short primer on the Israeli political system:

Israel is a parliamentary democracy, more or less on the same model as, say, Italy (and we all know how disfunctional Italy is, with over 50 governments since World War II…)
Basically, there is a 120-person parliament, with all the members coming from party lists. The leader of the largest party gets to lead the country as Prime Minister, and form a government.
However, unlike our own Congress, Israel has not two parties, but a whole smorgasbord of parties – every couple of shmoes who are unhappy with the government can come together and form their own party (and in a country full of Jews, that was never going to cause any problems, right?)
So there is an environmentalists’ party, a pot-smokers’ party, a retirees’ party, an Ashkenazi-orthodox party, a Sephardic-orthodox party, several nationalist-orthodox parties, an anti-religious party, and so on, and so on, and so on… (Anyone interested in forming a Minnesota-expats-enjoying-the-beach party for the next elections? Just asking…)
So, in order to become Prime Minister and actually get to govern (or what passes for governing in Israel), the leader of the largest party must have more than half of the votes of the Knesset in his support. This never happens. The largest party absolutely never gets enough votes that it can simply rule on its own.

So it has to form a coalition. And that’s where the fun really begins.

Every major party trying to form an actual government has to cobble together a coalition of other, smaller parties to support it, in order to get to and maintain 60 votes. If the government does not have 60 votes in the Knesset at any time, the government falls, and a new government has to be established. So a coalition with smaller parties must be maintained at all times, and at all costs.

And this is where we get into the small parties that really run the place.

At the moment, there are several smaller parties that are the key to holding the coalition together. I’m going to focus on 3 of them:

  • One is Israel Beyteinu (Israel is our Home): a highly nationalist party, with a large support base among the very nationalistic and largely non-religious Russian-Israelis.
  • The second is Shas: an ultra-religious party of the Sephardic ultra-orthodox.
  • The third is United Torah Judaism (UTJ): an even more ultra-religious party of the Ashkenazic ultra-orthodox.

So to recap: we have a highly-nationalist, non- (and sometimes anti-) religious party, with a heavy Russian-Israeli support base, and two extremely religious parties, both of which think the other’s rabbis are full of it, and both of which mostly couldn’t care less about the details of the national security situation (at least from the political point of view). And these three parties must all agree to sit in the coalition together, or else the government will fall. Are you with me so far?
In addition, since Israel Beyteinu (by far the largest of the three) has a large Russian-Israeli support base, it naturally cares a great deal about the concerns of this target group. And it just so happens that the Russian-Israeli population has two very specific and major problems. These problems stem from the fact that at the moment, a significant percentage of Russian-Israelis are “not Jewish according to Halacha” (for instance, if your maternal grandmother was not Jewish, you don’t qualify, even if the rest of your family was Jewish). So what that means is that there is a large number of people who are full citizens of Israel, have grown up in Israel, fight in Israel’s army, and overwhelmingly consider themselves to be Jewish (and were certainly (mis)treated as Jews back in the Soviet Union), but who, for reasons of which parent(s) or grandparent(s) is or is not Jewish, are not considered “Jewish enough” for the Israeli Rabbinate.
The main issue has been around marriage. Since this subset of Russian-Israelis are not anything other than Jewish (so they don’t care to have a Christian or Muslim marriage), if say, one Russian-Israeli whose father was Jewish wants to marry another Russian-Israeli whose mother was Jewish, they are not able to do so. At all. (Technically, they can skirt the issue and go to Cyprus, but that’s a little unreasonable to expect). There have been other issues, like burial (including some major cases concerning the refusal of Jewish burial for Israeli soldiers killed in the line of duty). But marriage has been the big one.
The other issue concerns conversion. Since the Russian-Israelis who are not “officially Jewish” realize that these problems will simply continue into the next generation, and since most of them consider themselves Jewish anyway (the overwhelming majority celebrate all the Jewish holidays and raise their children Jewish, just like any other Israelis), many are open to simply doing an official conversion and getting this issue over with in this generation.  However, since (let’s be honest here), they aren’t really all going to become Orthodox overnight (though the Reform and Conservative movements have been making some (limited) inroads in these communities), they have been faced with some issues going through the official Rabbinical courts for conversion (not to mention that quite a few of them, especially the women, rather chafe at some of the “education” they get from those Orthodox courts, as well).
So these people are sitting in a coalition with ultra-orthodox religious parties. And to be honest, they really don’t care about inter-denominational co-existance, theological consistency, or any of that stuff. They just want things to be easier for their people.

And that brings us to this conversion bill itself.

This is not too apparent from Rabbi Allen’s column, but this bill was actually not brought by any of the religious parties to cement their hold on conversions. It was actually brought by Israel Beyteinu, in order to make conversions easier. But in order to pass this bill, it has to have the support of the entire coalition, so both Israel Beyteinu and the two religious parties have to support the final bill, or it has no hope of passing (it actually has no hope of passing in any case, but more on that later).
So the original, and main, element of the bill was the second one – allowing local, municipal rabbis to set up conversion courts. There are far more details here, but the goal was to clear up some of the backlog that has been built up by forcing all conversions to go through a single set of “conversion courts.” Allowing a lot more rabbis to set up local conversion courts, the thinking went, would help speed a larger number of conversions.
A related section dealt with the common issue of some rabbis deciding your conversion was not good enough, or your rabbi not stringent enough (not reform, mind you, just “not my kind of orthodox” or whatever), and suddenly reversing the conversions, or refusing to perform marriages. This bill aims to create a situation where the courts that are allowed to convert you are also the only ones that can reverse that conversion (and not make it a free-for-all).

But here the coalition comes into play.

The Israel Beyteinu party just wants this stuff – they really don’t care about anything else. But they need to mollify the two religious parties, in order to secure their votes in favor of the bill.
So at some point during the negotiations, the other elements somehow made their way in, as well. Somehow (and nobody seems quite sure how), the bill now also formalizes the arrangement that the (Orthodox) Chief Rabbinate is officially in charge of all conversions (which up to now has been the de facto, but not formalized, arrangement). The bill has also somehow added the bizarre section that seems to say that if you entered Israel as a non-Jew at any point, any later conversion will not make you Jewish enough for the Law of Return, ever.

Finally, why this bill is NEVER going to pass.

Both of these sections are there, presumably, to make the religious parties comfortable enough to allow the main piece that Israel Beyteinu cares about – supposedly easier conversions in Israel for those Russian-Israelis who are “non-Halachically-Jewish.” Israel Beyteinu really doesn’t care about any theoretical impact to other communities abroad, etc. (We aren’t voting for them, or even bothering to move to Israel, unlike these supposed “non-Jews,” are we? So why should they care?) But these new, placate-the-religious-parties sections have really ticked off Conservative and Reform communities in the U.S. (understandably).
The thing is that, as the bill stands at this point, with all these new sections, it has managed to tick off so many people, from so many completely different factions, that it doesn’t have a hope of passing. It tries to do two or three completely different things, and each thing is upsetting its own distinct set of political players. So some people are upset with the original intent of easier local conversions that are harder to reverse (see: the religious parties). Other people are upset with the impact this might have on conversions, immigration, or more “liberal” strains of Judaism. Satisfying all of these parties is not very likely right now, so as it stands, this bill does not have a prayer of passing the Knesset – too many people are against it for too many reasons.
In fact, you can see this effect from the official status of this bill at the moment. The bill is only in the Knesset Law Committee (not on the Knesset floor), and the two religious parties have already been squabbling about it non-stop, accusing each other of all sorts of nonsense (like contradicting Jewish law, and so on, and so forth – “my Rabbi is bigger than your Rabbi”), and threatening to walk out every other minute.
At this point, discussions have come to such a dead end, that the Law Committee has arrived at a “tentative postponement agreement,” agreeing that the Committee would “discuss the conversion bill but will not vote on it.” The bill’s very author, MK David Rotem, keeps loudly stressing that “a vote will not take place at the end of the discussion.”
So the Committee in the Knesset is still not even ready to agree to vote on presenting this bill to the Knesset itself, and are busy re-enacting their kindergarden years. Personally, I wouldn’t hold my breath for this thing ever becoming law.
[Photo: Wikipedia]