With another election approaching, issues of religion and state have again raised their head, with politicians from the militantly secular Yisrael Beytenu party trading barbs with the Sephardi chief rabbi. The bone of contention relates to the conversion of immigrants from the Soviet Union and their children—many of whom are of only partial Jewish ancestry. Behind such controversies, writes David M. Weinberg, is the ḥaredi takeover of the institutions of the chief rabbinate in the early days of the peace process:
In the 1990s, the political left gave the keys to Israel’s Jewish character to ultra-Orthodox politicians in order to purchase ḥaredi support for the Oslo process and the subsequent Gaza disengagement. Ḥaredi rabbis began a slow but inexorable conquest, with the backing of the reigning Labor party, of city rabbinates, religious courts, conversion courts, municipal religious councils, and kashrut agencies, turning the chief rabbinate into an ossified, contrary force that has created more problems than it has solved.
Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox rabbis, who had built and controlled the rabbinate for the country’s first 40 years and who were generally much more attuned to the needs of the non-religious and Zionist public, were pushed out. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the same Faustian bargain in 2013, when, for narrow political reasons, he supported the ḥaredi candidate for chief rabbi, David Lau, over the Religious Zionist candidate, Rabbi David Stav.
As far as most ḥaredi rabbis are concerned, the many Russian non-Jews who came to Israel, and their children, can simply remain Gentiles—since ḥaredi society has no intention of mixing with that public anyway. . . . Religious Zionists feel differently. They generally view the wave of Russian immigration as a blessing from the heavens: a gift from God that imposes a responsibility on rabbinical leaders of this generation to develop solutions so that intermarriage with non-Jews does not become a problem in Israel as it has been in the Diaspora.