Moshe Nissim has dropped a ticking time bomb into the Israeli political scene.
He is a charming man who wears a yarmulka. In the distant past, he served as Minister of Justice and as Minister of Finance under a Likud government. At one time, he was the youngest person ever to serve in the Knesset; he was elected at the age of 24, sparking an uproar over the fact that he had not served in the military. He is a son of Rav Yitzchok Nissim, the former Rishon Letzion and chief rabbi of Israel.
What is the explosion that Moshe Nissim is now poised to create?
In the report that he submitted last week to Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu on the subject of giyur in Israel, Nissim proposed passing a law that includes a clause that states, “Any conversion performed by a recognized Jewish community abroad will be recognized for the purposes of the Law of Return.” To put it in simpler terms, the proposal grants official recognition to Reform conversions.
You may be wondering if Moshe Nissim’s law might be referring only to conversions that were performed in Orthodox Jewish communities. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The law states explicitly that a “recognized Jewish community” is defined as “an established and active community with a shared and known Jewish identity, which has an organized framework of communal management, and belongs to one of the streams recognized by the global Jewish populace.” That definition should remove even the slightest shadow of a doubt.
So there you have it. That is the reason for the fierce opposition to the so-called “Nissim Report.” Nevertheless, some more explanation is in order. For one thing, many have asked a simple question: Considering that the Israeli government has long recognized Reform conversions that were performed abroad, what is the reason for the sudden opposition to Nissim, who is not suggesting any change? The answer is very simple: Until now, the Supreme Court recognized those conversions, and there was nothing we could do about it. After all, the justices of the Supreme Court are the de facto rulers of the country; their power exceeds that of the cabinet and the Knesset. Moshe Nissim, however, wants to establish a new law that will officially recognize Reform conversions in chutz la’aretz, and he expects us to vote in favor of the law. That is, instead of going along with the policy in silence and for lack of an alternative, as we have done until now, he wants us to raise our hands in the Knesset in order to signal support for this clause. That is something that cannot be done. We cannot agree to this bill; we cannot set a precedent of this nature. In fact, our argument is that the State of Israel itself has never recognized Reform conversions performed in other countries, just as it has not recognized those conversions when they were performed in Israel. Rather, the Supreme Court forced the Ministry of the Interior to accept the recognition of foreign conversions, and even that is solely for the sake of officially registering the converts as Jews; the Rabbinate, on the other hand, does not recognize the conversions as valid. If the Knesset now accepts these conversions, it would be setting a major precedent.
This week, I bumped into Professor Shimon Sheetrit, a former Minister of Religious Affairs and well-known expert on law who assisted Moshe Nissim in his work. The professor was overjoyed to see me. “We haven’t seen each other since Turkey!” he exclaimed. (Several years ago, we traveled together on a delegation to Turkey for an interfaith dialogue program.)
I immediately asked him about the Nissim Report. “How could you have thought that we would agree to that clause?” I demanded.
“The situation right now is exactly the same,” he said.
“True,” I said, “but do you really expect us to actively vote in favor of it? You don’t understand that it’s impossible for us to become willing participants in this?”
“We will be satisfied if you don’t vote at all, neither for nor against the bill,” he said.
I laughed at that. “Moshe Nissim wants a broad consensus,” I pointed out. “How can he expect a consensus on that clause?”
A Chorus of Condemnations
The reaction was not only vehement and unequivocal. It was also universal. The chorus of rejection came from every direction at once, with no hesitation and no attempts to soften the opposition. Every chareidi political leader announced immediately that he would have nothing to do with Nissim’s report or his proposed law, and that the document should be consigned to the dustbin of history. One of the members of the Knesset invoked the term “chaspa d’alma,” the Gemara’s term for a completely worthless document. “It should be used to cover a plate!” he added, citing yet another phrase from the Gemara. The immediate and vehement reactions of the chareidi leaders indicated that their stance was unequivocal.
Moreover, these forceful reactions came not only from the political wing of the chareidi leadership, but from its rabbinic leaders as well. Two former Sephardic chief rabbis of Israel, Rav Shlomo Amar (today the rov of Yerushalayim) and Rav Eliyohu Bakshi-Doron (who made the effort to protest despite his illness), issued a joint statement against the proposal, going so far as to call upon the rabbonim from the dati leumi sector who had supported the report to retract their positions. “You have been misled. Do not lend your support to this plan,” they insisted.
The two current chief rabbis of Israel, Rav Dovid Lau and Rav Yitzchok Yosef, gathered the members of the Chief Rabbinical Council, along with a long list of rabbonim – including representatives of the dati leumi community – and issued a statement opposing the report. They were troubled by another clause as well, which stipulates that conversions are to be placed under the authority of a special bais din, and that a new government authority will be established to oversee all conversions. The text of the proposed law states, “Conversion in Israel will be an official process. An official Conversion Authority will be established, which will be a subsidiary unit of the Prime Minister’s Office.”
The first portion of the clause, which states that conversion will be considered an official process, sounds good. But the purpose of those words is to sweeten the bitter pill that follows. In the introduction to his report, Moshe Nissim pontificates about the fact that giyur must be religious, and in the text of the law itself (paragraph 15), he emphasizes, “The conversions performed by the botei din for giyur must be conducted based on the laws of the Torah.” Nevertheless, the Reform movement can certainly petition the Supreme Court with the claim that their conversions are also in accordance with Torah law, and the court may even accept that claim. Anything is possible in the Supreme Court….
In any event, from the standpoint of the chief rabbis and the Chief Rabbinate, this represents an unacceptable breach in established protocol. Removing giyur from the jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate and transferring it to anyone else, even if the dayanim were to be appointed by the Chief Rabbinical Council, would be the first step on a slippery slope whose end result cannot be foreseen. Even worse, Nissim’s report goes much further, suggesting that giyur should be subject to the authority of the prime minister. That, of course, is in addition to the official recognition of Reform conversions performed abroad.
The president of the Bais Din Hagadol, Rishon Letzion Rav Yitzchok Yosef, spoke very forcefully at the meeting. “I ask all the rabbonim of Israel, from all circles, to stand guard at this time to preserve our traditions,” he announced. “This is a law that will recognize non-halachic conversions. It will recognize Reform conversions, and it will be a very serious violation. I ask all the rabbonim to join this protest and to see to it that this law is buried. This law must not be passed.” The rov also wrote in an open letter to the public, “I call upon all the rabbonim of Israel, from every community and every circle, to unite and raise their voices in protest against the report of the committee on giyur and against the draft of the law, which represents a very severe impropriety, and to add their signatures to those of the rabbonim of Israel against this dangerous proposal.”
Rav Dovid Lau was equally vehement. “This is an assault on the ‘vineyard of Israel,’” he declared. “An attempt is being made to dupe the people into believing that this is a solution, while it is really a gateway to assimilation! It is a gateway that will bring about the destruction of the Yiddishkeit that exists in Eretz Yisroel today.”
During the meeting, it was decided that dozens of rabbonim would sign a letter opposing Nissim’s proposal. The letter stated, “We, the rabbonim of Israel, regard with concern the danger to the unity of the Jewish people that will result from the recommendations for reform in giyur, which include removing the authority over conversion from the Chief Rabbinate and recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions. As rabbonim in Israel, we demand that only conversions performed by the Chief Rabbinate or under its authority be recognized.” The letter also addresses Prime Minister Netanyahu: “We appeal to the prime minister to completely reject the report of the Nissim Committee and to immediately enact legislative provisions that will halt the Supreme Court’s attempts to recognize private and Reform conversions. We ask all the members of the Knesset and all the ministers of the government to do everything in their power in order to prevent this reform in giyur, which is liable to lead to assimilation and to the disintegration and division of the Jewish people.”
The Court Postpones Its Decision
The history of the struggle over giyur in Israel began 30 years ago, when the Supreme Court first ruled that a conversion performed outside the country, by a “recognized Jewish community” – by its own definition – must be recognized by the government for the purposes of labeling the convert as a Jew in the population registry and granting them citizenship under the Law of Return. The decision did not grant Jewish status to a convert with respect to marriage and divorce, which is the subject of a different law in Israel. Nevertheless, since the Law of Return states that any person who “is a Jewish child of a Jewish mother or has converted” may receive Israeli citizenship, the Supreme Court ruled that the Ministry of the Interior must grant legal Jewish status and immigration rights to any person who underwent a Reform conversion outside the country. The court’s ruling extends only to Reform conversions that were performed overseas, but not to those that were performed in Israel. The Reform petitions regarding conversion in Israel itself were rejected. The court explained that in Eretz Yisroel, there is an official rabbinate that is part of the government, and it is entitled to set the standards for conversion that apply throughout the country.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s ruling has determined Israeli policy until this very day. Under the status quo, any immigrant to Israel who arrives with a certificate of a Reform conversion is recognized by the government as a Jew; the Interior Ministry does not have the authority to deny them that status. Over the years, there have been occasions when the Reform movement has made gradual progress. For instance, they began advising non-Jews living in Israel to leave the country briefly in order to undergo a conversion and then to return. These “geirim” were offered a course of study in Israel, and they merely completed the process of “giyur” in a Jewish community outside the country. From the perspective of the Reform movement, the introduction of this ploy was a step in the right direction. There were also petitions filed with the Supreme Court for the government to recognize Reform conversions that had been performed in Eretz Yisroel. Their interference caused major hardships for the private botei din in Israel that perform conversions that are subsequently recognized by the Rabbinate. “Are we any less worthy than the bais din of Rav Nissim Karelitz in Bnei Brak?” they demanded in a petition to the court. Today, the courts value equality above all else….
Not long ago, the Reform movement drew attention to the subject of the private Orthodox botei din when they petitioned the Supreme Court to recognize them, along with organizations such as Tzohar Rabbanim, which are known to compromise on various issues in halacha. The Supreme Court accepted the petition to recognize the private botei din, and the Reform movement immediately demanded the same legitimacy for themselves. This, in effect, is what led to the Nissim Report.
Over the years, many petitions have been submitted to the Supreme Court by the private botei din, both the chareidi courts and the more lenient ones, as well as by Reform organizations, all of them demanding official recognition for their conversions. These cases dragged on for a long time, with the state taking the position that there is a difference between conversions performed in the Diaspora and those that take place in Eretz Yisroel: In other countries, there is no single official Jewish community, and the court therefore decided to use the yardstick of a “recognized Jewish community” to determine the validity of a conversion. In Israel, though, the government maintained that the state itself stands in place of an organized communal structure. Since the State of Israel has an official conversion apparatus, it should be considered the sole authority with the power to recognize conversions, whereas private botei din do not have that power.
The government’s logic, however, was not accepted by the court. Instead, the judges decided to conduct an experiment of sorts: They recognized Orthodox conversions and thus opened the door to private giyurim. The Reform and Conservative organizations jumped on the opportunity and immediately petitioned the Supreme Court to accept their conversions as well. As could be expected, the court issued a conditional ruling stipulating that the “giyurim” performed by these other movements must be recognized as well. Since it was a conditional ruling, though, it called upon the government to clarify its position.
With that, we found ourselves facing the possibility that the court might recognize Reform conversions in Eretz Yisroel. This ruling set a highly problematic precedent. Of course, we were extremely apprehensive about the outcome.
At that point, we leapt into action. The person who was most relevant to the issue was Aryeh Deri, in his capacity as Minister of the Interior and as a respondent to the petitions to the Supreme Court. Deri quickly enlisted the secretary of the cabinet at the time, Avichai Mandelbit (who has since become the attorney general), as well as the Minister of Justice to work for the cause. They all agreed that it was crucial to put an immediate halt to the process that had begun and to introduce a law that would state clearly that the state would recognize conversions only if they were performed by its official apparatus, under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, and that the conversions of private botei din would not receive official recognition. Even though this would harm the private botei din run by rabbonim from the chareidi camp, there was no alternative. This was a necessary step in order to prevent Reform conversions from becoming approved by law.
It is important to note that Moshe Nissim’s report also recommended disqualifying private botei din run by chareidi rabbonim from performing conversions, just as it disqualified Reform conversions in Israel. According to the Nissim Report, giyur should be performed only by the Conversion Authority that it proposed establishing. This is certainly an improper equivalence: The report indirectly equates a bais din in Bnei Brak, run by the greatest halachic authorities, with a Reform “bais din” in Hebrew Union College, lehavdil.
The Supreme Court’s ruling, as I noted, was a conditional ruling, requiring the government to respond. Aryeh Deri spearheaded the formulation of a bill that would not allow the Reform movement to have any involvement in giyur in the State of Israel. A special meeting of the party chairmen was convened in order to discuss the matter, and the members of the coalition agreed that this was the correct solution. Aryeh Deri pointed out that the country has recently been struggling with the issue of African infiltrators. “What will you do if all those illegal immigrants claim to have converted?” he asked rhetorically. “They will demand legal status in the country.” The absurdity of the notion made the dangers of the situation abundantly clear.
Deri brought his bill to the cabinet for its approval. Once the cabinet had given it the green light, the bill was transferred to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which allowed it to pass unchallenged. Once that had taken place, the government informed the court that it planned to enact a new law, and that it requested that the court not issue any new rulings on the subject until the legislative process concluded. The court accepted that request.
Moshe Nissim Is Recruited
When the Reform petitioners realized that the chareidi parties were about to pass a law to regulate conversions, they reached an agreement with the prime minister to request an extension of half a year, until January 2018, before the court would issue a ruling. This was despite the fact that the ruling had already been written, and that the panel of justices was headed by Chief Justice Naor, whose attitudes on the subject were very clearly in their favor. The chareidi representatives agreed to the postponement, since the law was intended to prevent a Supreme Court ruling. In the absence of such a ruling, there was no need to change the existing situation.
At that point, the prime minister decided to appoint a committee to determine how to handle the issue. The chareidi leadership was opposed to the idea, since the committee would include chareidim and Reform representatives, and it would be impossible for them to work together. Netanyahu then came up with a different idea: A mediator who was acceptable to all the parties would be chosen to come up with a solution. After several candidates were considered, someone suggested former Justice Minister Moshe Nissim. When he was approached about taking on the responsibility, Nissim refused at first to accept the task. At the same time, he expressed his firm conviction that the Israeli government should recognize only state-sponsored conversions, and not giyurim performed by private botei din. During that conversation, Nissim even commented that he could not understand why parties such as Bayit Yehudi opposed the concept of state-sponsored conversion rather than embracing it, while the chareidi parties supported the notion of giyur being under the auspices of the Zionist government. “It’s completely backward,” he said.
With that approach in mind, we agreed to Moshe Nissim’s appointment. Throughout the process, he continued expressing his support for placing giyur solely under the aegis of the government. As the months went by, though, his attitude changed dramatically. Eventually, it came to light that Moshe Nissim’s actions behind the scenes had belied his public statements. His true agenda was actually to use his report in order to quell the controversy and to make matters easier for the prime minister. Nissim even solicited the signatures of a long list of rabbonim to endorse his proposals, even though he was overstepping his authority as a mediator doing so. One of the signatories on the report was MK Elazar Stern of the Yesh Atid party, which was a clear indication of the direction the wind was blowing: There was no question that the report would favor the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions.
In addition, Nissim recommended the establishment of a committee with eleven members who would appoint the dayanim who would serve on the Conversion Authority. Those eleven people would include the Minister of Justice, the chairman of the Knesset Legislative Committee, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, and two public representatives who would be appointed by the Minister of Religious Affairs, with the consent of the director of the Jewish Agency. This would certainly allow the supporters of the Reform movement to influence the committee’s decisions. There are other problematic clauses in the proposal as well, but the issues we have mentioned – the official recognition of nonreligious conversions performed overseas, the establishment of a separate Conversion Authority, and the people who would choose the dayanim – were plenty of reason to oppose the bill.
A Report Rejected
In a cabinet meeting this week, Minister Aryeh Deri told the prime minister unequivocally, “We are absolutely opposed to these recommendations. They cannot even be brought for discussion. The only person authorized by government regulations to introduce a bill dealing with conversion is the Minister of the Interior, and it is absolutely clear that I will not submit this recommendation.”
Netanyahu replied that he had received the report only that day, and that he would have to study it and consult with the relevant parties. Therefore, he intended to ask the attorney general to request an extension from the Supreme Court in order to give him a chance to study the issue. Deri replied that he would have to return to his original proposal. The issue was also discussed in the weekly meeting of the party leaders, where Deri made it clear to the entire coalition that Nissim’s report was not up for discussion, and that it must be completely rejected. The members of the coalition accepted his stance.
MK Moshe Gafni also attacked the recommendations. “There is only one way to become a part of the Jewish people,” he said. “The attempts to use legislation to override that system will not succeed. We will never agree to those laws. The status quo must be preserved. The institution of giyur has accompanied us since we first became a nation. It is not a chareidi issue; it affects the foundations of our people, and no change in this matter can be permitted. The status quo cannot be breached.”
The prime minister received a report about these comments, and his office released a noncommittal statement to the effect that “the prime minister and his staff will study the report.” Netanyahu himself said, “We are continuing to work constantly to find solutions that will strengthen unity among the Jewish people in Israel and in the Diaspora.”
The Reform Jews, of course, are furious. Even though the requirement for government-managed conversion will exclude Orthodox botei din as well as Reform courts, the Reform movement abroad reacted fiercely.
The rabbonim of the Tzohar organization were also outraged. They protested vociferously, and they managed to persuade the Bayit Yehudi and Yisroel Beiteinu parties to oppose the conversion law, claiming that the giyur practiced by the Rabbinate is too stringent and only they can exercise tolerance in performing conversions. (Even in Nissim’s proposed Conversion Authority, the dayanim who would oversee conversions would be drawn from the botei din of the Rabbinate.)
You now have a clear picture of the situation. For the time being, there is a Supreme Court decision pending. If nothing happens, the Supreme Court will probably rule that the conversions of Reform botei din must be recognized. There is also a bill formulated by the chareidi parties, which was prepared long ago, that would deny the Reform movement the ability to perform conversions in Israel, and now there is another new bill that was composed by Moshe Nissim.
What will happen now? Actually, I predict that nothing will happen. The case in the Supreme Court will remain open, no new law will be passed, and the government will simply continue recognizing Reform conversions from abroad, albeit without that recognition being enshrined in law. The Reform movement themselves would prefer that situation. Even Nissim’s law, which would perpetuate the current arrangement, would deal a slip in the face to them at the same time. Of course, the chareidim’s conversion law would be even more of an affront to them.
As I mentioned, the problems in Nissim’s report and his proposed law led the chief rabbis of Israel and the chareidi politicians to inform the prime minister that they rejected it completely. As of now, we are all opposed to Nissim’s law. Aryeh Deri has announced that he will continue promoting his original conversion law, which would grant exclusive authority over conversions to the Chief Rabbinate. Netanyahu now understands that he has no alternative. The Nissim report has been thrown out, and the bill formulated by the chareidim is back in.