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Overview: Israel's Conversion Bill
and the Jewish Federation Response

Issue Background:

The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) opposes a proposed bill in Israel’s Knesset amending Israel’s Law of Return regarding converts and seeks greater dialogue and compromise on this issue.

One proposal of the bill could affect those who convert to Judaism after spending time in Israel, and prevent them from immigrating under the Law of Return and gaining automatic Israeli citizenship. The bill also, for the very first time, gives the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate authority over conversions in Israel, which could alienate the 85 percent of North American Jews who are not Orthodox.

Representatives of JFNA and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) met this winter in the Knesset with the bill’s sponsor, Member of Knesset David Rotem of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, and delivered a forceful message that, as Diaspora Jewry’s representatives, we seek to engage in discussions on any such initiatives before the law is changed.

Rotem pledged no changes would occur without our consultation. He and former Israel’s former Ambassador to the United States, Danny Ayalon, met with Diaspora Jewish groups in the U.S., including JFNA, to reiterate these promises.

But the week of July 12, Rotem advanced a new, even more troubling amendment, without consulting with JFNA or JAFI. The new changes would give “authority” to the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate in Israel to carry out all conversions and says a convert can only be recognized if one “accepts the yoke of mitzvot according to halacha” (as defined by the Chief Rabbinate).

In response, JFNA, JAFI and the religious movements led a concerted and high-profile advocacy effort against the proposal. As part of that effort, JFNA and its partners said the bill would "drive a wedge" between Israel and the Diaspora and cause "significant damage" to the Israel-Diaspora relationship. JFNA also urged Federations to relay their concerns to the prime minister via an online letter-writing campaign.

On July 18, Prime Minister Netanyahu issued a statement opposing the bill, making it unlikely the bill would succeed at this time, before the Knesset summer recess. JFNA and JAFI appreciate and applaud the prime minister’s leadership and concern for the unity of the Jewish People.

JFNA and JAFI continue to support further dialogue on this important issue and urge that all sides work toward a mutually acceptable compromise that preserves the unity of all Jews worldwide.

Jan 10, 2011

The Jewish Federations of North America welcome the just-announced new agreement on conversion in Israel, and thank Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his support.
All relevant parties in the Israeli government, including the Shas and Yisrael Beteinu parties, as well as representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements, have agreed to extend the moratorium on unilateral steps related to conversion for six additional months.
During this period all parties have undertaken to abstain from filing or continuing any court proceedings or to present bills in the Knesset plenum related to conversion.
It has also been agreed that during the moratorium period, Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky, together with Israel's Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser, will co-chair a roundtable on conversion that will include representatives of the Interior Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the Reform and Conservative movements and others. This forum will deal with requests and concerns of converts from Israel and overseas who encounter bureaucratic and other difficulties associated with their conversions.
JAFI’s Sharansky played, and continues to fill, an instrumental role in bringing together all of the parties and allowing the dialogue to continue.
According to Kathy Manning, chair of The Board of Trustees of The Jewish Federations of North America: "The Federation movement has been working closely with JAFI and the religious movements on the issue of conversion in Israel for the past six months. We warmly welcome this new agreement, which will give an opportunity for greater dialogue and understanding among all parties involved. It is indeed an important step in ongoing efforts to promote Jewish unity."
The Jewish Federations of North America's President and CEO Jerry Silverman  thanked Prime Minister Netanyahu for his support of the agreement and efforts to promote a solution. Silverman additionally recognized the work of JAFI's Natan Sharansky for the pivotal role he is playing in bringing all the parties together.
"The new moratorium is a victory for the voices of reason and unity. We are convinced that, through dialogue, a formula can be found that retains the basic, positive aim of the original bill, while finding language that is acceptable to all sides."
JFNA worked with the Prime Minister, Sharansky and others in seeking greater dialogue around the conversion bill since it surfaced last summer. JFNA recently urged the prime minister to support the moratorium extension, has met since last summer with key Israeli officials and legislators, and advocated publicly for dialogue around this important issue.

Responses from the Jewish Federations

What Does The Bill Say?

Media Coverage & Resources