Yisrael Beytenu submits raft of legislation on religion and state issues

Yisrael Beytenu submitted a raft of legislation regarding matters of religion and state which if advanced would create a veritable firestorm of protest from the ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionists.

October 4, 2019 04:21
3 minute read.
Yisrael Beytenu submits raft of legislation on religion and state issues

Avigdor Liberman at the Maariv/Jerusalem Post election conference on September 11. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Flush from its electoral success, Yisrael Beytenu submitted a raft of legislation to the Knesset on Thursday regarding matters of religion and state, which if advanced would create a veritable firestorm of protest from the ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist parties.

The party submitted seven bills in total, including a bill establishing the legal provision for civil partnerships, a lesser form of civil marriage; a bill threatening the revocation of state funding from ultra-Orthodox schools that do not teach core curriculum subjects such as Math and English; a bill allowing municipal chief rabbis to establish conversion courts; a bill permitting public transportation on Shabbat within cities and between cities; a bill increasing ultra-Orthodox enlistment to the IDF; and another bill repealing the so-called ‘mini-markets bill’ that prevents municipal authorities from increasing the number of businesses open on Shabbat.

Attempts to pass any one of these bills would generate intense opposition from religious parties, and the successful passage of any one of them will be extremely difficult.

The idea that all of them could be passed in the lifetime of one government after such legislation has been blocked for decades by the ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist parties would appear to be fanciful, even if those parties were excluded from the next government.

However Yisrael Beytenu’s submission of these bills on the first day of the Knesset’s new term is a signal by the party to its voters that it means to fulfill its campaign promise to “Make Israel Normal Again” in the manner that the state relates to religious matters.

Although each piece of legislation submitted on Thursday is highly controversial, perhaps the three most contentious bills are the potential drastic reduction in state funding for ultra-Orthodox schools that do not teach core-curriculum studies; the one opening the door to municipal chief rabbis to perform conversions; and lastly, giving the green light to civil partnerships.

The legislation on Jewish conversion is explosive, significantly reducing the control of the Chief Rabbinate over conversion and allowing municipal chief rabbis to establish their own conversion courts. This would particularly enable those rabbis interested in tackling the concern over increasing inter-faith marriage and civil partnerships in Israel, by couples choosing to side-step the Chief Rabbinate.

In the 2013 government, MK Elazar Stern fought relentlessly for legislation to empower municipal chief rabbis to establish conversion courts.

The idea was to empower rabbis such as Rabbi David Stav of Shoham and head of Tzohar, and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, to apply leniencies available in Jewish law to convert Israeli citizens originating from the former Soviet Union who may not be Jewish according to a stricter application of Jewish law, but who have Jewish ancestry.

Stern’s proposal was eventually passed as a government resolution rather than a law, following fierce opposition from ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist parties who were outside the government coalition.

Implementation was hindered by the government’s collapse, with the resolution soon repealed by the following government.

Yisrael Beytenu’s proposed legislation on civil partnerships could also be highly fractious, and potentially upend the pre-state status quo agreement signed between David Ben-Gurion and Agudat Yisrael. That agreement gave religious institutions of different faiths in Israel the authority for dealing with personal status issues such as conversion, marriage and divorce.

The Chief Rabbinate and the religious parties argue that civil marriage would lead to an increase in the number of “mamzerim,” a highly problematic personal status in Jewish law whereby the child of an illicit relationship is prohibited from marrying other Jews.

Counter-arguments have been made – including by former chief rabbi Bakshi Doron – that civil partnerships would not be considered marriage in accordance with Jewish law. Thus partners who separate and subsequently have children in other relationships would not be engaging in an illicit relationship, and their children would thus not be deemed mamzerim.

Nevertheless, civil partnerships would be a huge change to the status quo and would be vigorously opposed by the religious parties, as they were in the 2013 government and prior ones.

The proposed legislation would reduce state-funding for ultra-Orthodox schools that refrain from teaching the full core curriculum to 30% of the state-funding received by schools that do teach it, a reduction that would imperil the financial viability of ultra-Orthodox schools.

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