(photo credit: REUTERS)
The cabinet is expected to approve a government regulation on Sunday that will impose controversial reforms on the conversion process and hopefully put an end to a bitter coalition fight that has at times severely destabilized the government.
The reforms were originally proposed by Hatnua MK Elazar Stern in the form of legislation allowing municipal chief rabbis to establish their own conversion courts and thereby increase access to the system.
Intense opposition from Bayit Yehudi as well as the chief rabbis and the haredi political parties led Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene toward the end of the summer Knesset session. However, he did so as the legislation was close to approval in committee.
The prime minister asked Rabbi Haim Druckman, one of the most respected and influential national religious rabbis, to mediate between Bayit Yehudi and Stern in order to come to a compromise agreement on the terms of the reforms and to enact them via a government regulation instead of legislation.
A government regulation has the force of law, but requires only cabinet approval. It can also be easily revoked by a future cabinet decision.
An agreement was reached during the summer, which would only allow Orthodox rabbis to conduct conversions, and a regulation was expected to be approved at the beginning of the Knesset winter session. However, Netanyahu withdrew support for it out of concern for the political ramifications it would have on his relationship with the haredi political parties.
This led to significant drama on the first day of the winter session of the Knesset last week, when Stern, together with Yisrael Beytenu and Yesh Atid, managed to force the legislation through committee and prepare it for its final readings.
The threat of the Knesset approving the legislation, which it most likely would, led the prime minister to agree to bring the government regulation back into consideration, though a senior coalition source said Netanyahu did so reluctantly and without committing to vote for the measure.
Bayit Yehudi chairman and Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett resubmitted the same regulation brokered by Druckman on Thursday with Hatnua chairwoman and Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni.
“The decision I’m bringing to a vote is the correct solution for the Jewish people and will allow greater numbers of halachic conversions,” Bennett told The Jerusalem Post. “We overcame the haredi parties’ cynical pressures on the prime minister.”
“It will pass in the government or the Knesset,” Livni told Channel 2’s Meet the Press on Saturday night. “The prime minister can’t avoid his commitment to us. Now he will have to do what he refused to for months and if he doesn’t, the bill remains in the Knesset.”
A senior coalition source slammed Netanyahu’s “shameful capitulation to the haredim.
“I’m happy we got past it in the end,” he added. “Good, enlightened Orthodox rabbis like [Efrat chief Rabbi Shlomo] Riskiin and [Tzohar chairman and Shoham chief Rabbi David] Stav will be able to conduct conversions that will be recognized by the rabbinate.”
Ministers from Yesh Atid, Hatnua, and Yisrael Beytenu support the regulation, but the Likud’s position is undecided. Bennett and Pensioners’ Affairs Minister Uri Orbach plan to vote in favor of the measure, but Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel, of the more conservative Hatkuma faction within the Bayit Yehudi, is expected to abstain or vote against it.
Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef met with Druckman on Thursday morning to try to persuade him to withdraw his backing from the government regulation, but he has refused to do so.
The director of the ITIM religious services advisory and lobbying group, Rabbi Seth Farber, who was involved in drafting the initial legislation, on Friday criticized comments made last week by the chief rabbis, who said they would not recognize conversions performed by municipal chief rabbis. He regretted that the full legislation will not not be passed by the Knesset.
“The chief rabbis are already on record saying they will not accept the conversions of the municipal rabbis. This is an act of civil disobedience that demonstrates that they are out of touch with the realities on the ground,” said Farber. “The conversions performed by the municipal rabbis shouldn’t be subjected to further review by the chief rabbinate,” he continued, in reference to a clause in the government order, which is not present in the legislation, that gives the chief rabbis final approval on conversions performed by municipal rabbis.
“Still a government regulation is something to be proud of, as it demonstrates that ultimately, the centralized monopoly is destructive,” Farber added.