Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has asked Rabbi Haim Druckman to act as an informal mediator between Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan and Hatnua MK Elazar Stern to negotiate an end to their dispute over Stern’s contentious conversion bill.
Stern’s bill seeks to decentralize the conversion system and allow municipal chief rabbis to establish conversion courts, but is opposed by Ben-Dahan (Bayit Yehudi), who says the bill harms the standing of the Chief Rabbinate.
At present there are only four conversion courts in the country.
Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau also oppose the bill and insist the Chief Rabbinate maintain greater control over the process than Stern’s proposed law would provide.
At the end of the Knesset winter session in March, Stern’s bill was approved by committee for passage to the plenum for its second and third readings, although a vote on a proposed amendment to the bill must still be conducted before that the plenum can vote on it.
Ben-Dahan has, however, drawn up a separate conversion bill and seeks to have it approved by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation and then advanced through the legislative process.
Because of the coalition tensions the issue has caused between Bayit Yehudi and Hatnua, Netanyahu was asked to intervene.
The Jerusalem Post has learned that the prime minister asked Druckman, the former director of the state conversion system and one of the leading national-religious rabbis in the country, to try and find a compromise between Stern and Ben-Dahan on the issue, after Bayit Yehudi indicated that it would accept proposals made by Druckman.
But sources close to both sides indicate that significant concessions will be hard to come by.
In addition, Druckman himself has expressed opposition to the bill, and met Yosef in March, along with several other leading national-religious rabbis, to publicly say so.
Stern is also increasingly impatient with the delays and is considering taking action within the coalition if no progress is made on the bill by Monday, although what moves he might make are as yet unclear.
In theory, there is little preventing a vote on the proposed amendment, because there is a majority in committee for the bill and against the amendment, and the legislation would also likely pass in the plenum because it has the likely backing of Labor.
An attempt to force through the legislation would, however, create severe coalition tensions, and Bayit Yehudi could threaten to leave the government over the issue.
Stern, along with other proponents of the bill, argue that it is critical to create more conversion courts and make the system more accessible, in order to encourage Israeli citizens of Jewish descent who are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law to convert.
There are some 330,000 Jews in this category, mostly from the former Soviet Union, and activists argue that unless higher rates of conversion are obtained, the Jewish people within the State of Israel will become increasingly divided.
On Thursday, prominent national-religious figure Rabbi Yaakov Medan, one of the deans of the Har Etzion Yeshiva in Alon Shvut, spoke out on the issue and wrote on the Kipa news website that everything should be done to prevent intermarriage in Israel.
“Today we have to do everything in our power to bring those who halachically are non-Jews, who live here among us in the Land of Israel, to the path of conversion,” Medan wrote, “conversion that will be in accordance with the Halacha and not, God forbid, another [kind of] conversion that contradicts the foundations of the Halacha which has been observed continually for generations, [such as] Reform conversion or conversion that is overly lenient.”
Medan said that those of Jewish descent have integrated into Israeli society and will marry Jews, bringing about assimilation.
“We have to do everything to rescue ourselves from the plague of intermarriage, which is the lot of parts of the Jewish people in the Diaspora,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, the Tzohar rabbinical association will distribute to synagogues on Friday 100,000 pamphlets containing articles and statements from several national- religious rabbis, including Tzohar chairman Rabbi David Stav, Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, and Medan as well.
The introduction to the booklet states that one of its main goals is to “raise up a great cry... a cry so that we understand that we cannot ignore the great danger of intermarriage that threatens the whole of Israeli society.”
The second goal, it says, is to show that the issue could be dealt with through Jewish law, and it calls on the Chief Rabbinate to listen to these opinions.