A fierce political fight broke out on Tuesday between Bayit Yehudi and its coalition partners over a bill on reforming the conversion process, authored by MK Elazar Stern of Hatnua.
The bill proposes to allow chief municipal rabbis to establish a rabbinical conversion court in conjunction with one of the centrally appointed rabbinical conversion judges and any other rabbi ordained by the Chief Rabbinate.
There are only four conversion courts in the country.
Bayit Yehudi has come out in strong opposition to the bill, which passed its first reading in the Knesset. The party wants to anchor the Chief Rabbinate’s control of the conversion process in the law.
The party’s objections to the bill could destabilize the coalition, with Bayit Yehudi threatening to abstain from voting against a no-confidence motion brought by the opposition.
The bill is to be heard again tomorrow in the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, although sources within the party have said that the legislation will not be completed before the end of the current session.
Renewed attempts to conduct negotiations between the two sides will be made during the Knesset’s recess, they added.
The two chief rabbis sent a letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and party chairman Naftali Bennett demanding that they prevent the law from advancing.
They called the current version destructive.
Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan has submitted an alternative bill. The bill has not been brought to the Knesset yet, but is supported by party Bennett, who is the religious services minister.
Stern and coalition chairman MK Yariv Levin of Likud insist that agreements were recently made with Bayit Yehudi to advance the bill.
But a senior Bayit Yehudi source stated on Tuesday that “if [ Justice Minister Tzipi] Livni was promised that her party’s conversion bill would pass in exchange for voting for the three major bills [ultra-Orthodox conscription, electoral reform and referendum on land concessions], then that was an unfounded promise. We’re sorry someone made a promise to her, but it’s not our problem.”
The source added that party will vote against the coalition if the Stern conversion bill goes to the plenum.
“A conversion bill will not pass without the support of the Religious Services Ministry,” the source said.
During the reading and debate of the bill in the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Tuesday, MK Orit Struck (Bayit Yehudi) presented a long list of amendments and revisions on the bill, in an attempt to prevent a vote on the legislation in the committee.
Struck claimed that Stern’s bill would lead to “fictitious conversions” and that anyone passing through the system would not be Jewish.
She added that all coalition parties have a veto over legislation on religion and state relations.
She said the bill was being read in committee “despite Bayit Yehudi’s imposition of a veto over the bill.”
The party would not consider itself bound by coalition agreements on other votes in the Knesset plenum in the remainder of the winter session, she added.
Committee chairman MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu) said the bill was “a good law.”
He accused Struck and Ben-Dahan, who belongs to the Tekuma Party, a constituent of the Bayit Yehudi Knesset faction, of opposing the legislation “because municipal rabbis aren’t subject to the control of Tekuma.”
The purpose of the bill, say its advocates, is to give regional rabbis greater autonomy and to allow them to deal with the nuances of the situations of conversion applicants in their community.
The bill is designed to increase the number of converts from some 330,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came to Israel under the Law of Return but who are not Jewish according to Jewish law.
Ben-Dahan argued that chief municipal rabbis are not adequately trained in the laws of conversion. He insisted that changes had been made to the bill since it was approved by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation and passed its first reading in the Knesset.
He said that the law must include a provision formalizing control of the Chief Rabbinate over conversions; that chief municipal rabbis pass exams on the Jewish laws of conversion; that the Chief Rabbinate appoint at least one of the three members of the court and that all administrative matters be handled by the Conversion Authority.
Levin accused Struck of trying to waste time and to prevent the committee from voting on the bill and passing it back to the Knesset for its second and third readings.
The Knesset winter sessions ends this week and Stern and the bill’s other proponents are concerned that Bayit Yehudi is trying to earn time in order to stymie it.
“The unacceptable behavior of Bayit Yehudi is a complete violation of obligations and it breaks coalition agreements,” said Levin.
He was referring to an agreement he brokered between Ben-Dahan, Stern and Bayit Yehudi Knesset faction chairwoman Ayelet Shaked, in which he claims that the party agreed to advance the bill in committee.
“I will not bow down to threats and the failed efforts of Bayit Yehudi to prevent the progress of the conversion bill,” Levin added.
Stern told The Jerusalem Post that the Likud promised to support his bill, because he had withdrawn all his proposed amendments from the law on haredi conscription. Stern originally opposed clauses that maintained the short length of military service performed by national-religious yeshiva students in the Hesder program.
In an attempt to further delay the legislation, MKs from Bayit Yehudi, Shas and United Torah Judaism insisted that the bill be brought to the Knesset House Committee, chaired by Levin, to adjudicate if their proposed amendments required separate discussion and a new vote.
UTJ MK Moshe Gafni succeeded in getting Arab MKs Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) and Jamal Zahalka (Balad) to vote in favor of the motion to hold new discussions and votes on the bill.
MKs from Likud, Labor and Yesh Atid succeeded in defeating the motion, despite the combined opposition of Shaked along with UTJ, Shas and the Arab MKs.
Yesh Atid MK Dov Lipman, one of the bill’s sponsors, accused “extremist MKs in Bayit Yehudi trying to stop us from moving forward with legislation that is critical for the Jewish people.”
Lipman said he was “surprised that the religious-Zionist Bayit Yehudi Party, which believes in the significance of the State of Israel in the redemption process, is acting as if they are still entrenched in exile with regard to conversion policy.
“Removing conversions from the stranglehold of the Chief Rabbinate while preserving adherence to halacha will enable tens of thousands of Israelis who want to convert to convert,” Lipman continued.
“This will straighten out a horrific situation for immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who were persecuted in Russia because they were viewed as Jews and have had the doors to joining the Jewish people halachically closed to them upon their arrival in Israel,” he added.
Rabbi Shaul Farber, the director of the ITIM religious services and advocacy group, criticized Bayit Yehudi’s delaying tactics.
“The cynical use of a filibuster demonstrates their lack of sensitivity to the plight of prospective converts,” said Farber, who worked on helping shape Stern’s bill. “At ITIM we speak to people who seek halachic conversion, but are intimidated by the present system. Every day that goes by causes more intermarriage and assimilation.”
Also on Tuesday, the opposition marked its first victory in a vote with Struck’s help, blocking a government-proposed change to the Law Against Money Laundering and Terror Funding.
The bill was meant to require foreign-currency exchanges to ask for ID from people changing NIS 10,000 and up and to report transactions of over NIS 50,000 to the Prevention of Money Laundering and Terror Funding Authority.
Opposition MKs said the bill was unfair regulation of the money-exchange industry and that it could lead to layoffs.
A spokesman for Struck said that “the threat is starting to come true,” pointing out that the opposition was able to pass its revision of the bill because of Bayit Yehudi votes.