The Knesset Law Committee on Wednesday held a stormy meeting to discuss a private member's bill submitted by its chairman, David Rotem, authorizing chief rabbis of local authorities to convert non-Jews.
During the hearing, Rotem (Israel Beiteinu), a religious Zionist, locked horns with Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism Party) as Rotem tried to persuade Gafni to support the bill.
According to Rotem, both the Shas Party and the UTJ Party are bound by their coalition agreements to accept the bill. But both parties fear that the proposed legislation will dilute the standards of religious observance which the rabbinical courts insist on from potential converts.
In this context, Gafni explained that unlike would-be converts, a person who is born a Jew remains a Jew even if he does not observe religious law. That did not stop him, however, from demonstratively walking out of the room when Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Progressive Movement, who had been invited by the chairman to the discussion, began to speak.
Kariv said he was also worried about the bill because of a provision that declares for the first time that the chief rabbinate is in charge of conversion matters.
Rotem told The Jerusalem Post that the bill aims to make it easier for non-Jews who wish to become Jews to convert. This issue pertains mainly to an estimated 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who settled in Israel in accordance with the Law of Return, are Israeli citizens and serve in the army but are not Jewish.
Another problem that the bill aims to address is the increasing number of incidents in which dayanim (religious court judge) or registrars refuse to recognize the conversion certificates issued by accredited conversion courts.
Rotem told the Post that local chief rabbis would not be more lax than rabbis of the rabbinical courts in their demands of potential converts. However, because it is likely that the rabbi and the potential convert would live in the same town, the rabbi would be able to find a family to adopt him or take other measures to make the conversion process more pleasant.
"Conversion should be carried out with a smile and a welcome," said Rotem. "The process of becoming a Jew is difficult enough as it is."
Regarding the problem of rabbinical courts that nullify conversions approved by other conversion courts, Rotem's proposal stipulates that a court's conversion will only be cancelled if the court that conducted the conversion consents to the cancellation.
The bill also calls for the establishment of an appeals court to hear appeals against the conversion court rulings.
In his amendment, Rotem inserted a provision declaring for the first time that the rabbinical court is responsible for conversions. He did so because there is no such provision today, even though the rabbinical courts do in fact conduct conversions.
However, Kariv protested that the provision could undo all the achievements of the non-Orthodox movements in the field of conversion, including a High Court decision making it mandatory for the state to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions conducted abroad for the purpose of the Law of Return.
Rotem told Kariv that this had not been his intention and promised to change the wording. Kariv warned that he would watch to see that Rotem kept his word. "Otherwise, we will know how to mobilize all those groups that opposed the proposed changes to the Law of Return several years ago," he told the Post, referring to the mobilization of the Jewish communities abroad, especially the Reform and Conservative movements, against an amendment stipulating that only those who converted to Judaism in an Orthodox procedure could immigrate to Israel according to the Law of Return.