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Israeli Cabinet Rejects Measure to Ease Jewish Conversions

By ISABEL KERSHNER
July 5, 2015

JERUSALEM — The Israeli cabinet on Sunday rejected a proposed change that was supposed to ease the process of conversion to Judaism in Israel, a move that signaled the renewed strength of ultra-Orthodox parties in the ruling coalition formed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after he won parliamentary elections in March.

The change was promoted by secularist and liberal parties in the previous government, which excluded ultra-Orthodox politicians. It was approved by a cabinet vote last November but was never passed into law. That made it easier for Mr. Netanyahu’s new cabinet to abrogate the decision, in line with coalition agreements reached with the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties.

The idea had been to allow regional rabbis to establish local conversion courts, making them more approachable and closer to the communities they serve than the central rabbinical authority that has long monopolized the stringent conversion process.

The initiative was supposed to ease the path to conversion for tens of thousands of Israelis, many of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their descendants who qualified for Israeli citizenship because of their Jewish ancestry or family connections, but are not considered Jewish under the strict interpretation of religious law. Conversion will now remain under the full control of the Chief Rabbinate, which is dominated by strictly Orthodox rabbis.

Israel’s conversion policy and the power of the state religious authorities has long been a hot-button issue for Jews abroad, many of whom belong to the less rigid Reform or Conservative streams of Judaism.

The rejection is likely to be one of a series of measures to roll back steps taken by the last government. In another decision on Sunday, the cabinet decided that the rabbinical courts would be transferred from the Justice Ministry to the Shas-run Religious Services Ministry.

Tzipi Livni, the former centrist justice minister who now sits in the opposition, said, “This is a sad day for whoever believes, as I do, that Judaism is also about values and not only a political issue.”

Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident who is now chairman of the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental agency that helps deal with immigration, said in a statement, “We cannot accept the fact that a matter so vital to the future of the Jewish people and to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is subject entirely to the configuration of the coalition at any given time and to government decisions adopted and then canceled after each election cycle.”