Conversion bill passes first hurdle

Lieberman promises bill to be fully passed in a month; Likud, Habayit Hayehudi vote in favor; Yishai says bill's consequences are unknown.

Knesset winter session 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Knesset winter session 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The hotly debated IDF conversion bill sailed through its preliminary reading in the Knesset plenum on Wednesday, but its future remains uncertain, with a coalition crisis threatening to erupt.
Although a triumphant Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman promised to pass the bill through its final readings within a month, coalition partners in United Torah Judaism and Shas were working to delay the votes, with Shas saying it had struck a deal with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Shas: We won't let Israel Beiteinu tear nation apart
Knesset set to vote on IDF conversion bill
Shas chairman and Interior Minister Eli Yishai threatened to pull his party out of the coalition if the legislation advances.
“The bill violates coalition discipline,” Yishai said. “We oppose advancing this bill. If this bill advances, we will see ourselves free from voting [with the government] in the Knesset and our coalition obligations.”
The bill, sponsored by Israel Beiteinu’s faction chairman Robert Ilatov and MK David Rotem, passed its preliminary reading by a vote of 74-18, after both coalition and opposition lawmakers streamed into the plenum to vote on the legislation.
The bill’s chief opponents were the two haredi parties, although two of the National Union’s four MKs also voted against the measure.
“This wasn’t a division between religious and secular,” Lieberman said after the vote. “This is a complex, deep and serious topic, and the time has come to deal with significant issues and not just technical legislation.”
He added that he “hopes that other significant topics like changing the system of government and loyalty-citizenship will also reach breakthroughs.”
The foreign minister said he believed the conversion bill could complete its hearings in the Law and Constitution Committee within a month.
That might have become less likely later on Wednesday, when House Committee chairman Yariv Levin (Likud) dragged his feet in scheduling a meeting to determine which Knesset committee will discuss the bill.
Levin is reportedly refusing to pass the bill on to the Law Committee, which is chaired by Rotem, complaining that Rotem has delayed Levin’s legislation that was supposed to be discussed in Rotem’s committee.
The strongest challenge to the measure’s advancement, however, will come from the same parties that voted against it in the plenum.
Religious Services Minister Ya’acov Margi of Shas also threatened that his party might leave the governing coalition if the IDF conversion bill passes its first reading in the Knesset.
“If the prime minister does not keep his promises and stop this bill making its ways through the Knesset, there is no doubt that this will be considered crossing some red lines and cause a serious crisis, even leading to a breakup of the coalition,” Margi told the haredi station Radio Kol Hai.
After the bill passed Wednesday’s Knesset reading, Shas released a statement attacking Israel Beiteinu and calling the party “Shinui Beiteinu” – meaning “a change inour home” and also referencing the liberal political movement Shinui.
Later, the party also warned that it would begin to take revenge on the government by advancing legislation opposed by it.
Next week, Shas promised, the faction will bring MK Yitzhak Vaknin’s (Shas) Housing Law to the plenum floor for a preliminary vote. Vaknin’s bill, which would give benefits to young couples who buy homes in outlying areas, is opposed by the government because of its cost.
But according to a report in Shas mouthpiece Yom Leyom to be published on Thursday, Netanyahu promised Yishai that the military conversion bill would not pass without Shas’s consent.
Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar landed in Israel on Wednesday afternoon, and his spokesman said that the rabbi would be putting forth “his compromise” on the matter in an orderly fashion on Thursday afternoon.
Shas members have stressed that Amar wishes to resolve the issue of the signatures missing from the IDF conversion certificates, and is strongly against Rotem’s bill.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, head of the Shas Council of Torah Sages, also spoke out against separating military conversions from the Chief Rabbinate, and called the current problem with the IDF conversions “a technicality.”
In the meantime, Shas hopes that it can still derail Rotem’s bill. Faction members hope that Amar will be able to reach an agreement with IDF Chief Rabbi Brig.-Gen. Rafi Peretz and the government that will satisfy Netanyahu and prevent Likud from supporting the bill in its future readings.
As head of the country’s rabbinic courts, Amar’s signature is needed on military conversion certificates, a technicality that was overlooked for years. When asked to provide his name for the documents, Amar said he needed to examine the IDF conversion process, and formed a committee to advise him while issuing a letter saying the conversions were in accordance with Halacha.
That committee fell apart shortly after its inception, after which Rotem introduced his bill to give IDF conversions independence from the Chief Rabbinate by bestowing power on the IDF chief rabbi to be the final signatory on military conversions.
Netanyahu, after voting for Rotem’s bill, met on Wednesday with soldiers in the process of military- sponsored conversion.
“I will continue working to advance the issue of conversions in the IDF,” the prime minister told the soldiers. “One thing is definite – you serve the state, and you deserve to be a full part of the state. I think there is a wide consensus on that.
“Everyone who serves is entitled to conversion by Jewish law, it’s the least we can do. I am happy about what we decided in the Knesset today. We will either resolve the problem or legislate a solution to the problem. I hope the problem can be resolved without further legislation, but one thing is certain: I won’t let anyone harm you. The conversion process in the IDF is very successful, and we will continue it,” Netanyahu said.
Opposition chairwoman Tzipi Livni expressed doubt as to the sincerity of Netanyahu’s support for Rotem’s legislation.
“This bill must be passed into law.
This will be the test of the coalition,” she told Channel 2.
“We in Kadima will do everything possible to make sure it passes. The prime minister is not leading. He is just working on mediating between his coalition partners and staying in power. The prime minister doesn’t exist and the public will soon lead to his fall from power.”
Peretz said on Wednesday that a single, unified conversion authority is for the best for the soldiers undergoing conversion, and that he didn’t think that legislation was necessary to fix the “technical problem” of the lacking signatures on the conversion certificates.
“The military conversion courts are under the ongoing supervision of the Military Rabbinate, and their conduct is to the satisfaction of the IDF chief rabbi,” Peretz wrote in a letter addressed to Rabbi Haim Druckman, who heads the State Conversion Authority.
“It should be noted that the rabbinic judges serving in the IDF conversion courts also serve in that capacity in the civilian conversion courts,” Peretz said.
“As far as the IDF Rabbinate and its chief rabbi are concerned, a single conversion is to be preferred.
The IDF Rabbinate should be an extension of the Chief Rabbinate, it is better in regards to the force of the conversion, and also to the benefit of the soldiers, that the conversions will not be split,” he wrote.
“As far as the technical change, it does not necessitate legislation,” Peretz said.
ITIM: The Jewish-Life Information Center, whose petition against the Chief Rabbinate brought the problem with the military conversions to the fore, issued a reserved statement on Wednesday.
“Ideally, conversion matters should be resolved within the Chief Rabbinate and not on the Knesset floor, but unfortunately the rabbinate leaves no choice.
The rabbinate can still neutralize the entire [legislative] process if it only displayed leadership and responsibility, and issued a statement that the state’s conversions are valid and recognized with no qualms...”
“It’s good that the bill passed the preliminary reading, but what is really needed is that the law be enforced among marriage registrars who refuse to recognize the conversions conducted not only in the IDF, but also by the State Conversion Authority,” ITIM head Rabbi Seth Farber said.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.