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'Diaspora Jews 'coercing the Israeli government''
ByJONAH MANDEL
August 9, 2010 02:30
Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar says opposition to conversion bill 'causing great damage.'
Chief Sephardic rabbi Shlomo Amar.

rabbi amar torah 311. (photo credit:AP)

Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar slammed Diaspora Jews for “coercing the Israeli government” to drop the conversion bill, which is not justified and “causing great damage.”

In a letter published in Friday’s New York Times, Amar maintained that the bill penned by MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu) would not change the status quo for conversions, which “since the establishment of the State of Israel... have been governed by the Chief Rabbinate.”

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Any change to the status quo is likely to come out of a High Court petition backed by the Reform and Conservative movements, Amar said, adding that “fewer than 1 percent of the Jews living in Israel are members of these movements.”

Rotem’s bill sought to enable city rabbis, past and present, to conduct conversions, including for people living in other municipalities, while ultimately placing the conversion issue under the legal jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate.


Critics of the bill fear that such wording would prevent the state and its institutions from recognizing non-Orthodox converts for citizenship under the Law of Return. Rotem says that his legislation, which is meant to provide immigrants, mostly from the former Soviet Union, who are not halachicly Jewish with more welcoming options for conversion, would have no effect on conversions conducted abroad.

An impassioned campaign to prevent the bill from passing has been marked by opposition not only from within the Israeli political system, but also from US Jewry, whose religious and lay leaders’ presence was well felt in the corridors of the Knesset, especially after Rotem’s bill passed a Law Committee vote and was thus approved for plenary hearings in July.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who had said that the bill bore the threat of “tearing apart the Jewish people” and ought to be drafted in a way that is sensitive to the needs of all streams of Judaism, was subject to much pressure to ensure that he took the bill in its current version off the table. He eventually declared a six-month moratorium on the legislation, during which talks on the issue would be held “by all sides,” under the orchestration of Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky.

Amar, who had in July accused the Reform Movement of exploiting Israel’s sensitive political standing to pressure the prime minister to oppose the bill, expressed puzzlement in Friday’s letter over the fact that the “non-Israeli movements” objecting to the Israeli legislation asked 12 US senators “to pressure the Israeli government on this internal matter.

“Israeli laws should be determined by residents of Israel who defend its security and bear its burdens,” he said. “If our Jewish brethren immigrate to Israel, we will welcome them with great joy, and then they would be entitled, as citizens, to struggle for the adoption of their perspective. Diaspora Jews who are coercing the Israeli government to drop the proposed legislation are causing great damage. The bill, within the framework of Jewish law, would expand the ambit of conversion, prevent the application of unjustified stringencies, and provide more leniency and flexibility in administration. Many Russian Israelis would benefit substantially. In fact, this legislation was proposed by Israel Beiteinu – a secular party – representing more than a million Russian Israelis,” Amar’s letter read.

In return for the bill being put on the ice, the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel agreed to freeze their petitions demanding that the state recognize non-Orthodox conversions conducted in Israel for civil rights bestowed upon Jews.

Shas and United Torah Judaism, which supported the bill in the Law Committee vote, have said that they would proceed with the legislation in the Knesset’s winter session that begins in October. Some haredi representatives may partake in the planned discussions on the bill.

The Jewish Agency, meanwhile, reiterated its call for across-the-board unity on the issue.

“Israel belongs to all the Jews of the world,” the agency said in a statement on Sunday. “The moment the law of Israel, not just the opinion of the chief rabbi, but Israeli legislation itself starts grading the legitimacy of Jewish communities, we have a problem. This is not a debate about the position of the Chief Rabbinate in the conversion issue, but over whether the State of Israel sees itself as the home of all Jewish communities.”
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