MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu), chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, plans this week – and perhaps as soon as Monday – to present to the Knesset two important bills dealing with the thorny question of “Who is a Jew?”

If the bills are approved, Israel Beiteinu will have fulfilled a campaign promise to its constituency, predominantly immigrants from the former Soviet Union. But in the process, Avigdor Lieberman’s party might end up creating a new problem.

Whether intended or not, one piece of Israel Beiteinu’s proposed legislation paves the way for intolerable discrimination against converts of all streams – Reform, Conservative or Orthodox – by denying them eligibility for automatic Israeli citizenship.

THE FIRST of the two bills, which we wholeheartedly support, would enable Israeli citizens who are not Jewish according to Orthodox criteria to marry here. It provides for civil union between two non-Jews. Known in rabbinic jargon as a “Noahide Union” after the biblical Noah, this proposal has the backing of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Sephardi haredi Jewry’s most respected halachic authority and thus of Shas, but is opposed by the haredi Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism party.

The bill would be a partial solution for over 300,000 olim from the FSU who are not Jewish. Presently these citizens, who serve in the IDF, pay taxes, are patriotic and have tied their fate to the Jewish people of Israel for better or for worse, are forced to leave the country to get married. Only religious marriages performed by the official heads of the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Druse communities are recognized.

In the future, Israel Beiteinu hopes to pass a more controversial bill that would allow a Jew to marry a non-Jew.

THE SECOND, more problematic, bill would introduce reforms in the way conversions are performed.

There are many positive aspects to the conversion bill. It would empower city rabbis – in addition to the special conversion courts – to perform conversions. This would enlarge the pool of rabbis eligible to perform conversions, including those rabbis with a more lenient approach.

It is hoped that the number of conversions of non-Jewish FSU immigrants – presently steady at around 2,000 a year – would increase if there were more rabbis involved who see conversion as an important tool for enhancing social cohesion. Chief Rabbi of Efrat Shlomo Riskin is a perfect example of a more open-minded Orthodox spiritual leader who could potentially increase the number of conversions by providing encouragement and support to prospective converts.

The legislation would also make it much more difficult for a rabbinic court to annul a conversion performed by another conversion court. As a result, thousands of converts will no longer have to fear that at some undetermined time in the future their conversion will be retroactively abrogated.

However, the ambiguous wording of one of the clauses in the bill opens the way for discrimination against converts to Judaism. At present, all converts to Judaism, whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, are eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship like any other Jew born to a Jewish mother. An amendment to the Citizenship Law introduced in Israel Beiteinu’s new legislation states that anyone who “entered” Israel as a non-Jew (and did not have a father, grandparents or spouse who was Jewish and therefore was not eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return) and converted to Judaism at some later date, whether in Israel or abroad, would not be eligible for automatic citizenship. In theory this could be referring to any non-Jew who visited Israel at any time in his or her life, even for a day.

Israel Beiteinu’s Rotem rejects this interpretation and says that the amendment is aimed at preventing foreign workers from Third World countries from gaining citizenship by faking conversion. He insists that sincere converts of all streams of Judaism would be granted Israeli citizenship. But the law does not say that, nor does the official explanation accompanying the law.

Perhaps understandably, therefore, some in the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are concerned that Rotem, an Orthodox Jew, is working in cahoots with the Orthodox establishment in an attempt to block Reform and Conservative converts from receiving automatic Israeli citizenship, even though the bill does not say that either.

Discrimination against converts is unacceptable. The Torah repeatedly exhorts the Jewish people to avoid hurting the convert in any way. So we urge Israel Beiteinu to change the wording of its generally positive new legislation to ensure it does not single out converts as second-class citizens – or, worse, prevent them from becoming citizens at all.

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