In the wake of a massive outcry from Diaspora leaders and moderate national-religious rabbis, Bayit Yehudi leader and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett is seeking to amend the conversion bill being advanced by the haredi political parties.
Leaders of the progressive Jewish movements bitterly oppose the legislation because it would prevent the High Court of Justice from granting their converts full state recognition in a pending ruling on the issue.
Meanwhile, several senior national-religious rabbis are furious that the proposed law would deal a huge blow to their conversion program, which is designed to avert a looming intermarriage crisis regarding marriages between immigrants and their descendants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to religious law and Jewish Israelis.
These rabbis, including chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical association Rabbi David Stav, have lobbied Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi) to moderate the bill advanced by Shas and United Torah Judaism so it will not damage the legal status of their conversions.
Bennett and Shaked, together with MKs from Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu, are now trying to amend the conversion bill so it will only prevent foreign workers and illegal immigrants from abusing conversion to gain citizenship.
The Bayit Yehudi leaders met with Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and leaders of the progressive Jewish movements and the North American Jewish Federations to discuss changes to the legislation that would be agreeable to Diaspora Jewry.
According to well-placed sources, lawyers from the Justice Ministry met with lawyers from the federations to review in detail what changes could be made to the legislation to ameliorate its effect.
On Tuesday evening, Bennett took to Facebook to post a video explaining his stance on the proposed conversion law.
He said he supported the goal of preventing foreign workers and other non-citizens from obtaining Israeli citizenship by converting, but that the bill would have effects that are “too broad” and that he is working to reduce the impact of the legislation.
Kulanu MK Roy Folkman told The Jerusalem Post that Shas had misrepresented its bill before Sunday’s ministerial vote, which is why his party’s ministers had voted in favor of sending it to the Knesset with government backing.
The haredi conversion bill would give the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over conversion in Israel and annul all legal standing currently granted to Orthodox conversions performed in independent Orthodox rabbinical courts, as well as for Reform and Conservative conversions.
The Ministerial Committee on Legislation on Sunday approved the bill for passage to the Knesset, but that process has been stalled by an appeal for a vote in the full cabinet by Yisrael Beytenu, which fiercely opposes the legislation.
Currently, converts who choose to convert in independent rabbinical courts instead Authority, which is guided by the Chief Rabbinate, can register as Jewish with the Interior Ministry and gain citizenship through the Law of Return if they not already citizens.
Reform and Conservative converts also can register as Jewish with the Interior Ministry, and these denominations hope that the High Court will rule in favor of their petition demanding citizenship for their non-citizen converts through the Law of Return, as well.
Stav and the other leading rabbis who established the Giyur Kahalacha independent Orthodox conversion court in 2015 see the legal standing afforded their conversions by a High Court ruling last year as critical to their efforts to eventually force the Chief Rabbinate to register their converts for marriage.
The argument made by Shas at the meeting of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday was that the state should not give the keys to citizenship to non-state actors. Therefore, Bayit Yehudi is trying to amend the bill so that it deals with this issue alone.
In truth, however, Giyur Kahalacha and the progressive Jewish movements have said they are not interested in converting foreigners.
Folkman said Kulanu would support a law preventing refugees and illegal immigrants from getting citizenship through conversion, adding that the party was working with Bayit Yehudi and Yisrael Beytenu to make Shas’s legislation “more reasonable and balanced.”
He would not say, however, how the party would vote on the bill if such a goal was not obtained, stating that “at the end of the day, Kulanu only has 10 seats [in the Knesset].”
Yizhar Hess, director of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, said his denomination had no opposition whatsoever to legislation preventing the abuse of conversion for the purposes of obtaining citizenship and, in fact, welcomed it.
Approximately 90% of Reform and Masorti converts in Israel are already citizens, he stated, with just some 15 converts a year not having Israeli citizenship.
Hess argued, therefore, that Shas’s claim that its bill was designed to prevent mass abuse of the Law of Return through conversion was “cheap, transparent nonsense.”
“We don’t want anyone to exploit the Law of Return; we are Zionists and we would never enable such behavior,” said Hess.
“The real goal of the bill is to circumvent the High Court of Justice, which looks likely to give Masorti and Reform converts full recognition as they deserve after having waited so long for it in the legal process,” he said.