In an unprecedented political statement, Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar on Sunday called on the haredi parties to leave the coalition if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did not advance the conversion bill being promoted by MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu).
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Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu reiterated his opposition to the bill, which he said bore the danger of “tearing apart the Jewish people.”
In an interview with the Kol
Barama radio station, Amar accused the Reform Movement of exploiting
Israel’s sensitive political standing to pressure the prime minister,
who desperately needs the support of US Jewry, into opposing the bill.
they listened to me,” the chief rabbi said of Shas and United Torah
Judaism, “they’d stand up to Netanyahu as one and say, ‘Either pass the
conversion law, or we’re leaving.’” Amar’s remarks reflected the fear
within the Chief Rabbinate and haredi factions that the High Court of
Justice will rule that the state must recognize those who undergo
non-Orthodox conversions in Israel as eligible for benefits under the
Law of Return – as a petition from 2005 demands. In accordance with
earlier High Court rulings, the Interior Ministry already registers
Reform and Conservative converts from abroad as Jews.
“I told the
prime minister that if, God forbid, the High Court of Justice will
allow Reform conversions, we are dividing the people into two... We are
being consumed by the High Court piece by piece... there is a limit. The
court gave a deadline, and now that it has arrived, the prime minister
is afraid,” the normally statesmanlike Amar said.
Minister Eli Yishai (Shas), whose faction had supported the bill in the
Law Committee, echoed Amar’s sentiment and said on Sunday evening that
“the lack of a conversion bill will cause a rift, and is a great
spiritual danger to the Jewish people.”
Responding to the threats
from Shas on Sunday and Israel Beiteinu earlier, sources close to the
premier said Sunday night that “there was no chance of Netanyahu
allowing the bill to pass in its current form,” and that he would urge
all sides to return to the negotiating table.
Rotem’s bill, which
passed the Law Committee last Monday and now needs to undergo three
Knesset readings before becoming law, would enable city rabbis to
conduct conversions, while putting the conversion issue in Israel under
the legal jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate.
Critics fear this
would legally prevent any non-Orthodox conversion from being conducted
in Israel, and would allow the establishment to also reject converts
Netanyahu’s Sunday remarks were an accentuation of
similar sentiments he aired last week, and follow an intensive campaign
from Diaspora Jewry. The spokeswoman of the Masorti (Conservative)
movement in Israel told The Jerusalem Post that Netanyahu’s office had
received 50,000 e-mails protesting the bill in recent days.
up to Netanyahu’s statement was criticism of the bill by Minority
Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman, who used the platform of the Sunday
cabinet meeting to speak out against the proposed legislation – which
was not on the cabinet’s agenda.
After scolding him for his
misconduct, however, the premier turned to voice his own concerns over
“The implications of Rotem’s law is a tear in the
Jewish people, at a time when Israel is not exactly abounding with
support,” Braverman told the Post.
“Israel was founded as the
Jewish state in a Western, pluralist form, and cannot regress to become
the ‘Jewish group’” that does not represent the majority of the Jewish
people, which is not Orthodox.
“This is a battle over the future
of Zionism,” he declared.
Rotem himself remained unfazed by
Netanyahu’s intensifying objection.
“The premier is mistaken and
misleading,” he said. “The bill is not creating a rift within the
people. The law deals solely with conversions taking place in Israel,
and does not change the existent situation of conversions from abroad.”
added, “It seems that the prime minister, who was the very one who
asked that I reach understandings with the religious parties in the
coalition regarding conversion, was taken aback by the pressures applied
on him, or perhaps forgot his request... and made these remarks without
actually and seriously reading the bill.”
Rotem stressed that
the bill would pass, and the prime minister would be one of its
Meanwhile, those against the bill reiterated their
objections to it and praised Netanyahu’s remarks.
“We very much
support the prime minister’s statement a few weeks ago when he suggested
leading a dialogue to try and create an opportunity to bring the best
possible bill forward,” Jewish Federations of North America President
and CEO Jerry Silverman said on Sunday.
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