Israel stumbling in bid to ease conversion process
By Yair Ettinger • Haaretz
A group of religious Zionist rabbis and Knesset members came out Wednesday against one of the government's flagship initiatives to ease the conversion process - a bill to give the Chief Rabbinate a greater role in the process. At the same time, several organizations that run conversion programs said they are on the verge of closing, because the government funding they formerly received has not been transferred since the start of the year.
Both developments spell trouble for one of the current government's main campaign promises to increase the number of non-Jewish immigrants who convert.
Over the past year, the number of immigrants entering conversion programs has plummeted, and the programs' operators say the main reason is last year's controversial ruling by the Rabbinical Court of Appeals, which in one fell swoop invalidated all conversions ever performed by the state-run Conversion Administration, then headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman.
In response to this ruling, the government drafted a bill that would make it illegal to retroactively annul a conversion. But to placate the Haredi
(ultra-Orthodox) parties, which control the Rabbinical Court of Appeals, the bill would also allow the Chief Rabbinate - another body they control - to decide who sits on the special conversion courts, which until now have been dominated by religious Zionists.
On Wednesday, however, a group of rabbis identified with the liberal wing of religious Zionism, including Yoel Bin-Nun, David Stav and Michael Melchior, as well as two religious Zionist MKs, Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) and David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu), urged the government to withdraw the bill.
"The bill would enable the Haredim to seize control of all [conversion]
processes and refuse to allow anyone to join the Jewish people," argued Moshe Benatar, director of the Zionist Council, which called the meeting at which the rabbis and MKs issued their statement.
The problem is compounded by the financial crisis afflicting the conversion programs. Thirteen of these programs said they have received no state funding since the start of the year. The only program that is receiving funding, they said, is the state-backed conversion institute set up several years ago at the recommendation of a public commission headed by Yaakov Neeman (now the justice minister), which is jointly run by the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements.
About 18 months ago, the previous government decided to transfer responsibility for funding conversion programs from the Absorption Ministry to the Prime Minister's Office. However, the decision was never carried out, so at the start of this year the Absorption Ministry solicited and received funding applications from the programs just as it always had. But a few days ago almost nine months after submitting their applications the programs were suddenly informed that the government has decided to implement the decision after all, and the Absorption Ministry has been ordered to transfer all the applications to the Prime Minister's Office.
Amnon De Hartog, a private-sector attorney who used to be the Justice Ministry official in charge of state funding for nonprofits, said this decision will delay the process by weeks or months: First, it must be approved by the Knesset Finance Committee, and then, the Prime Minister's Office will have to start drafting new allocation criteria in light of a High Court of Justice ruling in May that required the state to fund non-Orthodox as well as Orthodox conversion programs.
The Prime Minister's Office, however, insisted that the problem would be solved in the next few days.