Earlier this year, Sharon appointed a special committee headed by a prominent rabbi, Haim Druckman, to accelerate the conversion process for thousands of non-Jewish spouses and relatives of Jews who immigrated to Israel after the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
The Israeli prime minister hoped quick conversions would solve the demographic imbalance between Jews and Palestinians and eliminate, at least for the foreseeable future, the prospect of Israel becoming a bi-national state or one with a large non-Jewish minority.
However, Israel's powerful Orthodox high rabbinate, which has authority over all religious matters including marriage, conversions and the issuing of kosher food certificates, last week issued a set of stringent rules that would make conversion far more difficult.
According to the Israeli press, the rules impose a series of demands on candidates and grant chief rabbis control over the conversion courts, which are supposed to be under the prime minister's office's jurisdiction.
The rules reportedly impose "lengthy waiting periods" and "testing measures" to ascertain whether or not the candidate is sincere about his or her desire to become a Jew.
The new rules would also demand potential converts lead an Orthodox life and disengage from any present liberal environment.
Under the plan the Rabbinic High Court, headed by Rabbi Shlomo Ammar, will have exclusive authority to appoint all officials to the conversion establishment.
The rules also give the rabbinic courts extensive new powers, including the prerogative of retroactively annulling conversions deemed "mistaken".
Some converts have been
accused of merely seeking perks
Israeli officials, particularly absorption officials, have pressed for easier conditions for conversion, mainly to increase the Jewish population of Israel, now standing at about 5.2 million.
However, the High Rabbinate has consistently rejected these efforts on the grounds that embracing Judaism is the rabbinate's exclusive responsibility, and must be done in accordance with halacha, Jewish religious law.
The more conservative rabbis have also argued that many would-be converts are motivated by a desire to get Israeli citizenship and attain social equality and economic benefits rather than being driven by a sincere commitment to Jewish values.
One of the rabbinic sages opposed to easing conversion is the Gush Emunim Rabbi Abraham Shapira.
He says the religious authorities will refuse to recognise the Jewishness of the converts unless they go through "the required criteria".
Some reform and Conservative
groups are not recognised
"This would create a serious dispute within religious circles and devalue these conversions, especially for purposes of marriage," he was quoted as saying by the Haaretz newspaper last month.
The issue is further complicated by non-orthodox groups (Reform and Conservative sects) who have been demanding, through petitions to Israel's High Court of Justice, that their conversions be recognised.
However, the orthodox establishment has been unyielding in its refusal to recognise reform and conservative conversions on the grounds that the two denominations, which constitute a numerical majority in North America, are not bona fide Jews.
According to Orthodox Judaism, a Jew is one whose mother is Jewish or has converted to Judaism through a licensed and authorised Orthodox rabbi.
Thus, anyone born of a Jewish mother is Jewish as long as he does not adhere to another religion. However, the question of what makes the mother Jewish has no answer.
If the father is Jewish, even if he is a rabbi, and the mother is not Jewish, the children will not be recognised as Jews. Indeed, even if a man commits himself to a Jewish religious life, he is seen in Israel as a non-Jew.
According to Israel's law of return, any Jew is allowed to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen.
However, the law of return has come under attack with some secular circles saying that it is anachronistic and too parochial.
Some circles have also warned that dwindling Jewish immigration to Israel, along with the growing Arab population, would eventually make Israel lose its Jewish majority, which, they argue, necessitates the speedy conversion of hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants.