Why nobody's happy with conversion bill

Bill threatening solidarity of coalition is actually 2 bills wrapped into one, and each has its own political foes.

By DAN IZENBERG
March 9, 2010 03:57
Conversion [illustrative]

Conversion 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

The Chief Rabbinate bill (Amendment – Powers in Matters of Conversion) that threatens the solidarity of the coalition is actually two bills wrapped into one, and each has its own political foes who, taken together, add up to an overwhelming majority of the Knesset.

In other words, if Israel Beiteinu decides to submit the bill to the plenum for first reading according to the wording presented on Monday to the Knesset Law Committee, it does not stand a chance of passing.

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The bill was initiated by the chairman of the law committee, MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu) in the hope that it would make it easier for the hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Israeli citizens to convert to Judaism.

The first part of the bill empowers local authority rabbis or those who served as local authority rabbis in the past, to establish a special conversion court together with two other local authority rabbis to hear and approve requests for conversion.

In doing so, Rotem hoped to break the bottleneck in the conversion process by adding a large number of new authorized courts and rabbis to grant conversions. He also hoped that local rabbis, who officiated at the grassroots level and knew their communities, would be more flexible in granting conversions. Today, only the government-administered conversion courts, headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman, and the district rabbinical courts may do so.

According to Paragraph 24b of the amendment, “A special court is authorized to consider the conversion of an Israeli citizen or a person who has permanent residency status according to the Entry to Israel Law and to grant a conversion document.”

Another sub-paragraph deals with the controversial question of whether the conversion courts may repeal a conversion that has already been granted. Rabbinical court dayanim have nullified thousands of conversion certificates granted by Druckman’s courts on the grounds that the rabbis in these courts were of too low a caliber to approve the conversion.

According to the bill, the court that converted the non-Jewish applicant may nullify the conversion if it discovers that the applicant provided false information or concealed information from it. If some other question arises about the Jewishness of the convert, the court that converted him or her will examine the matter, or the president of the High Rabbinical Court may refer it to a district rabbinical court.

This provision is meant to address the common phenomenon of local authority rabbis who refuse to marry a convert because they do not accept the legitimacy of the court that converted him.

The provisions of the bill presented to the Law Committee on Monday were dramatically different from the original bill that was approved by the Knesset in preliminary reading several months ago.

The changes came as a result of intensive negotiations between Rotem and Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar. The final draft of the bill for first reading was signed by Amar last week, with the blessings of Shas Party mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

But Shas has backed down from its approval, apparently because of the strong opposition of the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) Party.

The provisions of the current bill and the fact that negotiations were conducted between Rotem and Shas without including the UTJ infuriated the Ashkenazi haredi party. At Monday’s Law Committee meeting, UTJ MKs Uri Maklef and Moshe Gafni complained bitterly about the alleged betrayal of its coalition partner Shas, as well as about the contents of the bill itself. The MKs warned that the legislation would pave the way for conversions that were not in accordance with Halacha.

But while the first two paragraphs of the bill kept to the spirit, if not the exact letter, of the original draft, the third paragraph appeared to come out of the blue. In fact, no one seems to know exactly where it did come from.

According to Paragraph 3 of the draft, which is an amendment to the Citizenship Law rather than the Chief Rabbinate Law, “the right to citizenship according to the Law of Return will not apply to anyone who, before entering Israel, was not eligible to receive an immigrant’s permit or an immigrant’s document” according to the terms of the Law of Return.

In other words, if a non-Jew enters Israel and is not eligible for citizenship according to the Law of Return, even if he converts to Judaism after legally settling in Israel and receiving residential status, the Law of Return will not apply to him. Even though he is Jewish, the convert will have to go through the naturalization procedure stipulated by the Citizenship Law and reapply for his residential status each year, like all non-Jews.

Representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements and Hiddush, an organization campaigning for freedom of religion and equality, charged that this paragraph was aimed at them and was meant, among other things, to prevent foreign workers or refugees who obtained formal status, from becoming citizens even if they were to convert.

“It is clear that the Ministry of Interior wants to forestall any possibility of foreign workers or asylum-seekers from settling in Israel,” said Shahar Ilan, director-general of Hiddush. “They are just using the amendment to the Chief Rabbinate Law to achieve their aim through the back door.”

He also charged that it was unacceptable that there be first-class and second-class Jews.

Nicole Ma’or, an attorney for the Israel Religious Action Center, which belongs to the Progressive (Reform) Movement, warned that the provision could be used to prevent non-Jews who converted abroad from immigrating to Israel according to the Law of Return. She charged that the bill was worded so loosely that it could open up possibilities in the future that Rotem had not intended.

Today, in accordance with a High Court ruling, a person who converts to Judaism abroad and moves to Israel will be granted automatic citizenship according to the Law of Return. But what if such a convert had visited Israel before his conversion? Would he retroactively lose his status as an Israeli citizen if the law were passed? And, looking toward the future, what if a non-Jew visited Israel as a tourist, returned to his home country and then decided to convert and return to Israel after his conversion? Would he still be eligible for citizenship according to the Law of Return? Who was responsible for this addition to the bill, which is not even mentioned in the words of explanation that accompany it because it was tacked on at the last minute?

Rotem would not say. However, he made it clear that without it, Shas would not support the legislation and that without Shas’s votes, he would not be able to pass the part of the bill that he cared about – that is, allowing local authority rabbis to convert.

Neither the communications adviser of Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman or Justice Ministry official Yochi Gnessin, whose names have been linked to the provision, were prepared to comment on the matter to The Jerusalem Post.


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