With one of two crucial bills still in limbo, Israel Beiteinu succeeded late Monday night in passing a limited civil union bill, which would enable Israelis with no officially defined religion to join in civil union. But with no agreement reached on the conversion bill, coalition partners Shas decided to oppose the civil union measure.
Israel Beiteinu had promised – and grounded in its coalition agreement with the Likud – that by the one-year anniversary of the forming of the government, on March 31, it would succeed in legislating a civil union bill.
That anniversary falls during the Knesset recess that begins on Thursday, meaning that Israel Beiteinu needed to pass the bill before the end of the winter session. In an effort to do so, the party received exemptions last week from the House Committee from the usually required waiting-periods between hearings and votes on bills.
The legislation’s sponsor, Knesset Law Committee Chairman MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu), described it as a first step en route to greater openness regarding civil union.
At the last minute, Shas announced that it would rescind its support for the bill, which it supported in earlier readings both on the plenum floor and in committee. Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar said that as long as no deal had been reached on the conversion bill, Shas would not support the civil union measure either. Shas ministers were expected to boycott the vote entirely, while the rank-and-file MKs were expected to vote against it.
On the opposition side of the Knesset, Kadima party leaders decided to pick up the slack, suggesting that its members would vote in favor of the civil union bill, but would also vote in favor of a long series of reservations.
During the Knesset vote on Monday night, MKs who believed that the bill did not go far enough enough staged a filibuster for two hours and 40 minutes, insisting on their rights to present – and lecture extensively upon – all of their points of disagreement with the legislation.
Opponents of the measure expressed concern that it would increase the power of the Chief Rabbinate, by extending it the right to weigh in on whether or not an Israeli citizen listed as “without religion” was actually religionless. The bill would only permits citizens without religion to marry other citizens without religion, a tiny percentage of those seeking to marry without the oversight of the Chief Rabbinate.
Furthermore, opponents complained, the civil union bill would create a status of people with fewer rights even than couples recognized as married by common law, and would create a problematic situation overseas, as other countries do not recognize any parallel status to “civil union.”
Currently, Israelis may be recognized as civily married if they are civily married overseas, and then apply for recognition of their status by the Interior Ministry upon their return to Israel.
MK Marina Solodkin (Kadima) said there were many disadvantages to the bill, but that she was prepared to vote for it along with Kadima’s reservations.
“We must understand that this bill essentially represents a consensus,” she said during her speech.
Solodkin said that she gets thousands of letters from young adults asking her how it is possible that they serve in the IDF but are prohibited from marrying in Israel. Most of the Israelis defined as religion-less are immigrants from the former Soviet Union who entered under the Law of Return but were not Jewish according to Jewish law. Some of them filed for status as Christians, but those who felt that they were Jewish, even if not according to Jewish law – or did not identify with any religion – were registered as religionless.
While Rotem and his faction were enthusiastic regarding their anticipated victory, a second key bill sponsored by Israel Beiteinu was at risk of remaining dangling during the recess as party officials admitted on Monday that the negotiations on the conversion bill, which seeks to extend the right to conduct conversions to municipal rabbis, were not making significant progress.
The legislation was supposed to have closely followed that of the civil union measure, but it hit an unexpected roadblock last week when Shas rescinded its support for the bill. Rotem told a visiting delegation on Monday that the bill would not be passed before the Pessah recess.
Prior to the vote, an Israel Beiteinu official had told The Jerusalem Post that although they believed the conversion bill had a chance of passing even without Shas’s support, “It is an important enough piece of legislation for us that we are not willing to take a chance. We want to be certain that it has the widest and strongest possible support.”
The official had said it was likely that the bill would be carried over to the summer session, but that the party still believed it would pass - as it eventually did.
Earlier on Monday, a delegation of overseas Jewish leaders led by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Jewish Federations of North America Senior Vice President Rebecca Caspi, director of its Israel office, met with Rotem to discuss the bill.
The delegation came to express concern regarding a clause that could
prevent a convert to Judaism who visited Israel and then underwent
conversion in Israel or in the Diaspora from receiving Israeli
citizenship under the Law of Return. The Jewish Federations of North
America has issued a statement strongly rejecting such a proposal, and
has written directly to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on the
Rotem told the delegation that Netanyahu was aware of the importance of these issues for Jews around the world.
Sharansky said, “We have received assurances that we will be consulted
in this process so that the views of world Jewry are taken into
Jpost.com staff contributed to this report.