Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar has proposed amending the Law of Return so that converts to all three principal streams of Judaism - Reform, Conservative and Orthodox - would no longer be eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship.
In an interview with Israel Radio Tuesday morning, Amar commented on his proposal.
"We don't want a situation where the Law of Return and the rights that it grants are being used indiscriminately," Amar said. "[The proposal] relates to the conversion aspect of the Law of Return, and to those who convert. They are able to come as citizens through other laws, and that is fine. They can come and request citizenship. There are a lot of people that do this, and of course they will be considered."
If Amar's proposal is approved by the Knesset, only Jews born to a Jewish mother or other relatives of Jews currently covered by the Law of Return would be entitled to automatic citizenship.
Sources close to Amar said the proposal was presented to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday in the hope that the cabinet would sponsor it as a bill in the Knesset.
However, the Prime Minister's Office denied receiving the proposal.
"We have received no request from Chief Rabbi Amar," said cabinet secretary Yisrael Maimon. "We've checked with everyone and no one knows anything about it."
Interior Minister Roni Bar-On also said that he knew nothing of Amar's proposal.
"Over the last 10 years the concept of conversion has lost its religious meaning," the proposal reads. "It has become instead a means of immigration through which non-Jews seek automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return without any intention of becoming a part of the Jewish people.
"This draft legislation proposes... that conversions - Orthodox, Conservative or Reform - will no longer give the convert an automatic right to citizenship. Rather, the convert will be allowed to naturalize in accordance with objective criteria of citizenship."
According to sources close to the Justice Ministry, both Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz and the deputy attorney-general for legislation, Yehoshua Schoffman, oppose the proposed legislation. They reportedly are critical of the fact that converts who converted years ago for purely religious reasons would also be denied citizenship.
However other leading legal figures welcomed the proposal because it would separate religious conversion from citizenship, a decidedly secular concept.
According to the same sources, leading figures in the Prime Minister's Office also support the proposal.
Rabbi and attorney Gilad Kariv of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center said Amar's proposal was "baseless and anti-Jewish."
"It is a foolish attempt to revive the conversion law and stoke controversy in the Jewish world. Sadly, the Chief Rabbinate is prepared to harm basic Jewish values such as the prohibition to differentiate between a convert and a Jew at birth, in the name of protecting the Orthodox monopoly," he said.
Amar's proposal also offends many American Jewish leaders, who have taken issue with Israel's rabbinical establishment and its efforts to stymie non-Orthodox Judaism.
"It will deligitimize our conversions and by implication our Judaism. It's another example of the problems that flow from religious monopolies," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of America's Union for Reform Judaism. "I hope it will not be taken seriously."
Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, predicted the initiative would "not be well received" by the American Jewish community.
The Law of Return "is the basis under which the country has operated for 59 years, and a change in the Law of Return would not be at all welcome," he said. "At a time when Israel and the Jewish people face many challenges together, suggestions that divide Jews - and this is divisive - would not be very welcome."
MK Avraham Ravitz (United Torah Judaism) said he had not discussed the bill with Amar but that he was skeptical it would prevent Reform and Conservative converts from acquiring citizenship.
"Reform and Conservative converts will still be able to become Israeli citizens according to objective naturalization criteria," Ravitz said. He agreed with Kariv that such legislation would constitute blatant discrimination against converts.
MK Zevulun Orlev (NRP-National Union) voiced support for the proposal.
"The amendment protects the unity of the Jewish people and prevents the division that would be caused if Reform conversions are recognized," he said. "It also closes lacunas that allow conversion for the purpose of citizenship and taking advantage of the warm shelter provided by the Jewish people and the State of Israel."
Orlev said the proposal represented a test of Shas's dedication to Israel's Jewish identity.
A Shas spokesman declined to comment on the issue.
The Chief Rabbinate presented the draft legislation ahead of a pivotal High Court of Justice ruling on Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel. The court has been asked to decide whether these conversions will provide eligibility for citizenship.
Reform and Conservative conversions performed abroad have been recognized by the state since 1989.
Amar and his supporters are concerned that foreign workers whose work permits expire and who fail to find an Israeli spouse will seek a Reform or Conservative conversion as a way of staying in the country.
Shimon Ya'acobi, legal adviser to the Rabbinic Court system and a driving force behind the proposed legislation, said converts, non-Jews, foreign workers and others seeking Israeli citizenship should be allowed to do so under non-religious legislation. This, he said, would prevent them from using non-Orthodox conversions for economic and other purposes.
Amar's document also proposes anchoring in law the jurisdiction of special Rabbinic conversion courts over conversions performed in Israel.
Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report.
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