Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (R) and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A controversial bill on conversion reform sponsored by Hatnua MK Elazar Stern was approved in committee on Wednesday for passage by the Knesset plenum, although it will not be brought to a vote until a proposed amendment is heard, which will only take place in the legislature’s summer session that begins on May 12.
The bill has generated intense opposition from Bayit Yehudi, which absented itself from vote of confidence in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, as part of its continuing protests against the legislation.
Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan of Bayit Yehudi is opposed to the clauses in the bill which would end the Chief Rabbinate’s centralized control over the conversion process, which is one of the central goals of Stern’s bill.
Bayit Yehudi also opposes language used to in the bill to preserve the current status of Reform and Conservative conversions.
Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau have also vigorously opposed the bill in its current format and insist that the Chief Rabbinate retain greater control over the process.
On Tuesday night, Yosef and Lau wrote to Netanyahu and Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett and said the bill in its current format would destroy faith in the state conversion process.
Unless the bill was coordinated with the Chief Rabbinate it could divide the Jewish people in Israel into sectors in which one would not recognize the Jewishness of the other, they said.
And Shas chairman MK Arye Deri threatened that if the bill was passed the haredi community would establish an alternative rabbinate.
Sources in Bayit Yehudi expressed concern on Wednesday that the bill’s proponents could muster a majority and pass the legislation in the coming Knesset session despite the party’s opposition.
The party will now seek to either amend the terms of the bill or advance its own legislation on the conversion issue.
Bayit Yehudi’s anger over the measure once again spilled over into the broader political arena.
Party MKs left the Knesset plenum during a vote closing an opposition-proposed discussion titled “One Year Since the Failed Government was Formed,” which was defeated by a margin of just four votes, with only ministers participating from Bayit Yehudi.
In response, coalition chairman Yariv Levin (Likud Beytenu) removed all of Bayit Yehudi’s bills from the docket, including Economy Minister and party head Naftali Bennett’s plan to lower food prices.
A party spokesman explained that the party’s MKs walked out on Bennett’s instructions, after an article was added to the conversion bill without the party’s prior knowledge.
Following Bayit Yehudi’s walkout from the plenum, Levin said, “Bayit Yehudi never learned coalition discipline or commitment to agreements,” adding, “I will not give in to extortion.”
However, Bennett and Levin later reached a compromise in which the former’s party’s bills were put back on the agenda. In addition, a separate government-proposed conversion bill will be brought to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation in the beginning of the Knesset’s summer session.
Stern accused Bayit Yehudi of spreading disinformation about the bill’s provisions regarding the standing of the Reform and Conservative movements. “Because of their inability to explain their opposition to the bill to their electorate, and to the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora, they are disseminating false rumors that the bill will recognize Reform and Conservative conversions,” he said.
“From the beginning stages of the legislative process it was agreed unambiguously that the law would not benefit the Reform and Conservative [movements], and neither would it injure them,” he said.
At present Reform and Conservative conversions done abroad are recognized by the Interior Minister’s Population Registry for the purposes of immigration rights under the Law of Return, and converts undergoing non-Orthodox conversions in Israel are registered by the Population Registry as Jewish although they cannot marry in Israel since the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize such conversions.
Yizhar Hess, the director of the Conservative Movement in Israel, said that although the Conservative Movement disagrees with the Orthodox monopoly on conversion, he respected Stern’s efforts to reform the process.
Hess added, however, that attempts to convince Bayit Yehudi of the need for changes in the system were futile.
“Only a free market of ideas and beliefs, that acknowledges the reality that there is more than one way to be Jewish, will maybe convince more people in Israel to convert,” he said.
Yesh Atid MK Rabbi Dov Lipman, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, insisted that the legislation conforms to the standards of Orthodox Jewish law and said it was required to ease the path to conversion.
“Over the course of this year, I have met huge numbers of candidates for conversion who meet the halachic criteria, and they are being bullied and pushed away by an extremist rabbinate,” Lipman said. “I have met Russians with tears in their eyes begging me to help them. I call on Bayit Yehudi to return to its roots and join us in bringing this proper and necessary law to the Jewish people and those who want to join our nation.”