In 1997, amidst controversies over whether Israel, and the Israeli rabbinate, would recognize non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism, Israeli political and religious figures together with representatives of the major American denominations concluded a complex compromise that, although never made law, has governed policy de facto ever since. A bill recently before the Knesset would upend this compromise by solidifying the control over conversions exercised by the ultra-Orthodox-dominated Israeli chief rabbinate. Responding to outrage from American Jewish leaders, Prime Minister Netanyahu has shelved the bill—which seemed poised to pass—for six months. But, as Haviv Rettig Gur explains, the proposed legislation is a response to a conflict between the chief rabbinate and a group of Israeli Modern Orthodox rabbis—a conflict that is unlikely to go away.
Despairing of what they see as the Israeli chief rabbinate’s overly restrictive demands for converts—including those who are already citizens (thanks to the Law of Return, which confers citizenship on anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent), and so cannot be suspected of seeking to become Jews just to obtain an Israeli passport—a group of Modern Orthodox rabbis . . . has convened its own conversion courts and begun converting individuals in Israel outside the auspices of state institutions.
The state, of course, refused to recognize these “unsupervised” conversions when it came to granting citizenship. The rabbinate, which correctly viewed these conversions as direct challenges to its religious hegemony, refused to recognize them for the purposes of marriage, divorce, or burial. . . .
[Thus] the new conversion bill . . . was not born from the fact that the state doesn’t recognize conversions carried out by the Israeli Reform movement. . . . It was born instead from the fact that the ḥaredi establishment has fought bitterly in the years since . . . to push out of the official state bodies the very Modern Orthodox who once . . . saw themselves as part of a single unified “Orthodox” side to the controversy. . . . But the social and political context has changed. As ultra-Orthodox control of the rabbinate grows more pronounced, . . . the status quo has already been pulled to the breaking point from both ends. . . .
[T]her are many Israeli officials who support the bill for reasons that have nothing to do with ḥaredi culture wars or Reform views on halakhah. . . . While Reform, Conservative, and ḥaredi leaders seem to think the bill is about them, about the battle for religious liberty or against heresy (respectively), many Israeli officials back the bill for a simpler reason: any process that confers automatic citizenship on a person, they feel, should be carried out under the auspices of the state.