Following discussions within the coalition on Monday, an agreement was reached to advance a contentious bill on conversion reform authored by MK Elazar Stern of Hatnua party, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Political sources revealed on Thursday that Hatnua and its coalition partners reached a deal on Monday in which Hatnua would support crucial government legislation in return for a promise to advance a conversion reform bill in committee.
Well-placed sources say Hatnua agreed to support three central government bills – the electoral reform, haredi conscription and referendum laws passed this week – if the conversion bill were advanced.
The bill faced opposition from the chief rabbis as well as Bayit Yehudi and its Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan. Although the legislation passed its first reading in the Knesset several weeks ago, it has yet to go to committee.
According to political sources, a meeting was held on Monday among MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua), Ben-Dahan, coalition chairman Yariv Levin and Bayit Yehudi chairwoman Ayelet Shaked in order to move the bill forward.
The first hearing on the bill since its first reading in the Knesset plenum will be held on Tuesday.
There is no agreement on the final terms of the measure and Hatnua sources insist that they will not compromise on its principles.
The bill proposes to increase the number of rabbis who can perform conversions in Israel and allows them to operate within their communities and not in the current centralized format, with four conversion courts in the country.
The law would create 30 new conversion courts by allowing any serving chief municipal rabbi of a city or regional council to establish a threeman conversion court, along with a rabbi who qualifies as a rabbinic judge and any other rabbi with rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate who has passed a test on Jewish law pertaining to conversion.
The process would be further decentralized by allowing any citizen wanting to convert to approach any of the new conversion courts, regardless of where the conversion candidate lives.
The purpose of the bill, say its advocates, is to give regional rabbis autonomy to allow them to deal with the nuances of the situation of conversion applicants in their community.
The Chief Rabbinate claims that the new law would allow rabbis who are not experts in Jewish conversion laws to conduct conversions without sufficient oversight.
Ben-Dahan has prepared his own draft bill for conversion reform, but his version gives much greater authority to the chief rabbis than is currently the case and contradicts the goals of Stern’s bill.
Ben-Dahan’s bill has not been presented to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which must approve any legislation if it is to get coalition backing before it reaches the Knesset.
Hatnua leader and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni chairs the Ministerial Committee and it may be unlikely that she would allow Ben-Dahan’s bill to pass the panel.
Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the ITIM religious rights advocacy group, who has worked on the bill, said it was frustrating that more progress had not been made on Stern’s legislation, “given the fact that the government declared conversion a national priority.”
“Conversions in Israel have not been increasing in number, while the birthrate of Israel’s non-Jewish immigrants has been going up,” Farber said in reference to Israelis, mostly from the former Soviet Union, who are of Jewish descent but not Jewish according to Jewish law. “There is a real fear that in an attempt to pass a bill quickly, there will be compromises made that will affect the capacity of municipal rabbis to effect conversions.”
ITIM wants to ensure that the Orthodox options that are available to potential converts will “maximize halachic integrity and minimize bureaucratic and other hurdles,” Farber said.