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Israel rabbis challenge Orthodox control over conversions

Aug. 12, 2015 2:26 P.M. (Updated: Aug. 12, 2015 5:37 P.M.)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, September 17, 2012 as they celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. (AFP/Jack Guez/File)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- A group of Israeli rabbis has launched a movement of conversion courts challenging the ultra-Orthodox establishment's monopoly on conversions to Judaism, organizers said Tuesday.

The move is being seen as a serious challenge to ultra-Orthodox control over key aspects of Israeli life.

The new conversion courts now join the debate in Israel over who can be converted to Judaism and how.

An initial conversion of six children, not authorized by the chief rabbinate, took place on Monday.

And while the conversions are not expected to be recognized officially, organizers of the new movement hope that pressure on the government will increase as more people take part.

"The idea is to create a more moderate, open conversion system which is more connected to Israeli society and realizes the Zionist dream of Jews coming from all around the world," said Elad Caplan of ITIM, one of the organisations behind the initiative.

Media reports spoke of a serious challenge to the ultra-Orthodox establishment, with Haaretz newspaper calling it "the first act of mutiny against the chief rabbinate's restrictive control over the conversion process."

The new conversion courts, which include 12 rabbis, allow for a simpler process that organizers say will make it easier for immigrants.

They also say it will allow those who consider themselves Jews culturally, but who have been unable to convert officially, to do so.

The current process is stringent, requiring a commitment to a strict, religious way of life.

Potential converts also face difficulties including demonstrating lineage, such as proving that one's mother was Jewish.

Some 364,000 Israelis of Jewish ancestry -- mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union -- are not considered Jewish and are defined as "religionless."

Israel also does not allow civil or interfaith weddings, meaning that those considered "religionless" cannot marry in Israel.

The challenge to the religious establishment comes after ministers last month struck down a bill that would have overturned the chief rabbinate's monopoly on conversions.

Rejecting the bill was a condition of the ultra-Orthodox party Shas for joining Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government.

Netanyahu has a majority of just one seat in parliament.

Opponents reject the conversion movement and say it could lead to a dilution of the Jewish community.

A spokesman for the chief rabbinate declined comment when contacted by AFP Tuesday.

However, a former spokesman said he strongly opposed the initiative, saying it would "open the door for assimilation."

"The Jewish state has responsibility not only for its current citizens, but also the historical phenomenon regarding the Jewish nation," Ziv Maor told AFP.
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