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The Conversion Issue

While most eyes today will be on Israel’s Labor Party convention and its scheduled vote on joining Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition, another important political story is barely getting attention. That is, the refusal of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) to sign a coalition deal, because of differences with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu over the issue of conversion. Lieberman is known around the world mostly for his views on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but as a representative of the very large community of Russian immigrants to Israel he also holds strong views on church-state relations — views that often contradict those of Netanyahu’s other “natural” political partners, the religious-right parties. Thus, we get this new crisis:

In coalition talks with the Likud, Lieberman’s party was able to extract concessions on reforms in the conversion process. Yet these clauses in the agreement were deemed unacceptable by the spiritual head of UTJ, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, thus leading to an impasse in coalition talks with the Likud.

Lieberman’s achievement seems technical in nature. It will authorize rabbis of municipalities to oversee conversions, thus diminishing the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over all conversions. The ultra-Orthodox control the chief rabbinate, but in different parts of the country some moderate rabbis are more attuned to the needs of local communities, among them Russian immigrants with whom questions of conversion can be very sensitive.

A senior rabbinic figure and critic of the conversion reforms who is close to Elyashiv told The Jerusalem Post last week that past experiences have shown that allowing city rabbis to perform
conversions tends to lead to bribery. “A local rabbi is liable to be exposed to all sorts of economic pressures from residents of his town,” said the source.

Of course, the fractures within the ultra-Orthodox camp don’t help to clarify matters. Some of Netanyahu’s aides believe that the new crisis is more a sign of struggle between the two rival camps comprising this party. Earlier in the process, there were signs that UTJ would be ready to make some compromises in order to join the coalition. But on the conversion issue, there’s very little chance that the party will change its position, and efforts are now being made to convince Lieberman to show some flexibility, and to agree to amend the already-signed agreement he has with Likud.

Where does all this lead?

Politically speaking, it means Netanyahu desperately needs Labor to vote “yes” and join him. Without Labor, and without a UTJ compromise, he will not have a majority. The marriage between Israel Beiteinu and the religious parties was problematic to begin with. Even if a compromise in this case can be construed, future religion wars will surely make the narrow coalition even more fragile than it is.

Culturally speaking, it means that while ultra-Orthodox parties gain votes (and voters, by way of higher birth-rate), their actual ability to control Israel’s religious life is weakening. Haredi power was always built on political maneuvering as well as on the relative apathy of many of Israel’s more secular citizens. The emergence of parties for whom challenging ultra-Orthodox power is an important agenda item — from Shinui almost a decade ago, to Lieberman today — indicates that apathy is still alive.



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