Rotem revises conversion bill

Liberal Jewish leaders call move a breach of understanding with PM.

July 12, 2010 02:51
3 minute read.
David Rotem.

David Rotem 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )


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Israel Beiteinu MK David Rotem will be bringing a slightly amended version of his conversion bill for discussion in the Knesset Law Committee on Monday morning – much to the surprise and consternation of liberal Jewish groups in Israel and abroad.

The groups decried the move as a breach of an understanding they believed they had with the government, according to which they would be part of the dialogue on the bill.

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Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who was recently commissioned by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to lead that dialogue, will also be attending the session.

If the bill’s draft is approved by the committee, which Rotem heads, it could be brought for a first reading in the Knesset later that day.

Sources close to the issue say there is a good chance of the bill passing these initial obstacles.

According to Rotem’s bill, city rabbi will also have the authority to conduct conversions, but these will be under the full authority and responsibility of the hands of the Chief Rabbinate. The ramifications of this for conversions, and accordingly for the Law of Return, has raised concerns among leaders of Jewish movements in the US and Israel. Rotem has held repeated meetings with them, joined by fellow Israel Beiteinu member Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, in which they unsuccessfully attempted to assuage Jewish leaders’ fears.

In a letter penned by cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser at the beginning of June, Netanyahu informed the leaders of the Reform and Masorti movements in Israel that “any legislative arrangement will have to ensure the unity of the entire Jewish people.”

The premier also appointed Sharansky to lead a dialogue with Diaspora Jews on the issue, after a letter from the Jewish Federations of North America to Netanyahu said that Rotem’s bill would be “disastrous to the unity of the Jewish people.”

“Over the recent months, we conducted intensive talks with ministers and members of the Prime Minister’s Office in order to reach a draft of the bill that will not harm non-Orthodox Judaism, in Israel and abroad – one that will not harm the fragile and gentle fabric of relations with Diaspora Judaism,” Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Israel Masorti Movement, said in an announcement on Sunday.

“It was agreed that a joint committee would be formed, to promote this issue with the due caution,” Hess said.

“We call on the prime minister to step in and stop the scandalous bill that Rotem is trying to underhandedly pass, all this merely a few days after Netanyahu’s successful visit to the US, in which he didn’t hint at the move in his meetings with the Jewry there,” he added.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform Movement in Israel, said that the unexpected discussion was a result of a deal Rotem had reached with the haredi parties, and that the gist of the bill went against High Court of Justice rulings as well as the interests of the immigrants whom the bill was meant to help in undergoing conversions.

Kariv also sent a letter to Netanyahu, urging him to prevent the bill from passing the committee discussion.

“Our movement seeks dialogue with the government, including on conversion,” the letter said, “but this type of unilateral step will be an impassable obstacle to that important dialogue.”

Rabbi Uri Regev, head of the Hiddush NGO for religious equality and freedom, slammed Rotem for “knowingly and deliberately acting against the Jewish people... by kneeling to the Chief Rabbinate and haredi politicians, and crowning them as responsible for conversion in Israel.”

Also on Sunday, President and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North American Jerry Silverman, currently in Israel heading a delegation of 120 top federation leaders, called on Netanyahu to prevent the advancement of the law in its current format, which could damage the ties between Israel and the Diaspora.

"We are deeply shocked and disappointed to hear that the bill will suddenly be presented tomorrow in its current, highly problematic format without any input from Sharansky or Diaspora communities," Silverman wrote. "We are left feeling upset and even betrayed by Rotem and those behind the bill," after all the discussions and efforts to reach common grounds seem to have "disappeared overnight."

Silverman noted "significant damage that such a bill could cause to ties between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, at precisely the time when we are all working so hard to build bridges," and called on the premier to "stop this bill from proceeding before the proper discussions that you requested are completed."

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