Conversion bill debate heats up

Rabbi Amar and Shas leader Yishai respond to PM's opposition to bill.

July 19, 2010 05:52
4 minute read.
Interior Minister Eli Yishai

Eli Yishai 311 aj. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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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).

Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu reiterated his opposition to the bill, which he said bore the danger of “tearing apart the Jewish people.”

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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.

“If 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.

Interior 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 from abroad.

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.

Building 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 bill.

“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.”

He 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 supporters.

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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