Opponents alarmed as Israeli conversion bill moves ahead
NEW YORK — Opponents of a controversial bill that could give the Orthodox Rabbinate the final say over conversions in Israel are trying to keep the bill from moving ahead in the Israeli Knesset after its surprise introduction and passage by a Knesset committee.
For months, Israeli lawmakers have been discussing a bill that would put more power over conversion into the hands of Israel’s Orthodox-dominated Rabbinate by giving local rabbis the ability to perform conversions and giving the Chief Rabbinate oversight and control over the whole process.
The bill, sponsored by Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset member David Rotem, gained steam Monday with its approval in the Knesset law committee by a 5-4 vote. The bill now must pass three readings before the full Knesset to become law.
Opponents are desperately trying to stall the process, at least until the Knesset starts a two-month break next week.
“They have to bring it to the Knesset now for a first reading, and we have to make sure that it will not happen,” the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, told JTA.
Sharansky is leading a coalition against the bill that includes the leaders of the North American Jewish federation system and the non-Orthodox Jewish religious movements in the United States.
Rotem’s bill originally was intended to ease the conversion process within Israel and make it easier for non-Jewish Israelis of Soviet extraction to obtain conversions and marry within Israel.
Despite its intent, opponents warned that the bill would consolidate control over conversions in the office of the Chief Rabbinate and drive a wedge between Israel and the Diaspora by carrying the risk that non-Orthodox conversions performed in the Diaspora could be discounted in Israel. In addition, they said the bill would affect the eligibility of converts for the Law of Return, which grants the right to Israeli citizenship to anyone who is Jewish or at least has one Jewish grandparent.
The opponents urged Rotem to revise the proposal. They believed they had a deal in place with Rotem to hold off on the bill pending more discussion after Rotem came to the United States in April to discuss the bill with them, and after a number of meetings between Sharansky and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Several top Israeli officials, including the justice minister and minister for Diaspora affairs, had agreed to work with Sharansky on altering the bill.
But Rotem caught Sharansky and the Diaspora leaders by surprise by bringing the bill to a committee vote this week; Sharansky was given only a day’s warning. The move set off a maelstrom of criticism from the Diaspora.
The CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, Jerry Silverman, called Rotem’s action a “betrayal.”
In a letter of protest from the president of the Union for Reform Judaism that was signed by 14 other organizations, including various arms of the Conservative movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote, “Rotem’s actions are contrary to the assurances we received in meetings with him and with others over the last several months.”
In an interview with JTA, Rotem was unapologetic about moving ahead and said, “This bill will pass, no doubt.”
“I never promised anything,” Rotem said. “I told them all the time in the meetings that if I will see there is a majority, I will bring it a vote. No one can say I promised anything.”
In their discussions with Rotem, Diaspora leaders expressed concern about an item in the bill that would have taken away the right to automatic citizenship for anyone who comes to Israel as a refugee but then converts to Judaism. Rotem removed that item before pushing the bill through the law committee.
Now, he says, the bill has no effect on American or Diaspora Jews and that this is solely an Israeli matter over which non-Israeli Jews should have no say.
“I don’t know why they wanted to have discussions,” he said. “I came to the U.S. I spoke to leaders, and I explained this is nothing that touched the American community. It has nothing to with Jews in the Diaspora. It is only an Israeli matter.”
Since Monday, Sharansky has engaged in a number of discussions with Israeli lawmakers, including Netanyahu. The Jewish Agency chief said he believes the bill will not come before the Knesset this week, and hopes it will not be on the agenda before the two-month recess provides a chance to alter or scuttle the bill.
Sharansky said he is pushing for Netanyahu and his Likud Party to publicly oppose it.
“If it is clear Likud will not support it, it will not pass,” Sharansky said.
The Jewish Federations say that Silverman and federation lay leaders met with Israel’s president Shimon Peres Monday. Peres, according to a JFNA press release, pressed for more dialogue on the proposed bill that would give American voices greater credence.
“More than half of our people are living in the State of Israel. Almost half of it lives outside of Israel. We should remember that those living outside of Israel are not represented by the Knesset, they have their own communal life,” Peres told the group.
“A discussion that bears consequences on the entire Jewish people should include different voices — from within Israel and from without. The legislative process should include an open public discussion that will lead to an understanding. It should be conducted with tolerance, with open hearts and open minds
“It is important for us, for the unanimity of the moment, that we have to keep the pressure on,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told JTA.
“I think it would be an error to think that in the political society as dynamic and hyper-dynamic as Israel is that we are done with this,” he said. “The people who care about these issues have to constantly keep them on the agenda and explain why they are important to decision makers.”