Knesset set to vote on IDF conversion bill

PM says he will vote in favor of Rotem bill if understanding not reached with Shas as group holds late-night meeting.

IDF troops 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
IDF troops 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
With the Knesset set to vote Wednesday on the controversial IDF conversion bill, last-minute talks were under way Tuesday evening in the hopes that a coalition deadlock between Israel Beiteinu and Shas could be staved off.
Although Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman swore that he would not change “even one word, one comma” in the legislation, Shas ministers held a late-evening meeting at the home of their spiritual adviser, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, to discuss the bill, which they consider a violation of their coalition agreement.
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The fate of the bill largely depends on last-minute decisions expected to be made on Wednesday. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that if he could not reach an understanding with Shas regarding IDF conversions, he would vote in favor of the bill, sponsored by MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu).
“Conversions are handled successfully by the IDF,” explained the prime minister. “It is important that these soldiers are converted according to Halacha. I will not allow them to be harmed in any way. These soldiers risk their lives for our security, and this is the least we can do to thank them.”
Coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) said that under conditions similar to those the prime minister had set, the entire Likud faction would vote in favor of the legislation, but coalition discipline would not be imposed.
Both Shas and United Torah Judaism are expected to fervently oppose the legislation. UTJ MK Moshe Gafni said that “what will happen tomorrow at the Knesset is a terrible thing. There will be an official declaration on the destruction of the Chief Rabbinate, the state’s supreme halachic authority. This is a battle over the existence of the Jewish people.”
Gafni was speaking at the ongoing 20th International Conference on the Laws of the Torah, dealing with monetary issues in Halacha.
Whether or not the Likud supports the bill, Israel Beiteinu will receive a leg up from Kadima, the Knesset’s largest faction, which has promised to throw its 28 votes behind Rotem’s bill during its preliminary reading.
“The true test for Israel Beiteinu is not bringing the bill to its preliminary reading, but in its quick advancement and preparation for its first reading, starting next week, in the Law and Constitution Committee,” said MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima).
“Kadima will commit to providing Israel Beiteinu with parliamentary support that will enable it to pass the law quickly, even if Netanyahu decides to stick by the illegitimate deal he has already worked out against IDF conversions,” he said.
During a faction meeting held earlier Tuesday, Lieberman said he did not believe the legislation had to lead to a coalition crisis. He dismissed haredi opposition to the bill as part of a power play to assert control over IDF conversions.
“IDF conversion works excellently, and there is no reason to harm it,” he asserted.
“There are those who want an additional signature on the decisions of the IDF chief rabbi so that someone on the outside can control IDF rabbis – but we will not give up,” Lieberman promised.
“Israel Beiteinu respects Judaism and Jewish values – we are certainly not an anti-Jewish or anti-religious party. That is why I think the IDF chief rabbi is enough of an authority and respectable enough to decide on matters of conversion and be the final authority on the subject,” he asserted.
Lieberman stressed that Israel Beiteinu did not “seek war with Shas or seek to dismantle the coalition, but we will not give up. There is no reason to harm the dignity of soldiers who have proven their loyalty and citizenship in action. The IDF has shown that there is a true melting pot in Israel.”
Shas’s rebel MK Haim Amsalem slammed what he described as “the latest Shas absurdity” for the party’s intention to object to Rotem’s bill. Amsalem stated that everything Shas needed to know about Yosef’s attitude toward conversions could be found in the 1976 protocol of a Knesset hearing, in which the then-chief rabbi stated his support for encouraging certain conversions. Rotem plans to distribute copies of the protocol to each of the 120 MKs ahead of Wednesday’s vote.
On the other side of the debate, a spokesman for Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar stressed on Tuesday that he wanted to form a committee that would ensure due respect for the soldiers, rather than create a second class of conversions for them. Serious rabbis are to be part of the committee, the spokesman said.
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 proposed 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.
Critics say that such a change will create different classes of conversions, and that military conversions will not be recognized by the Orthodox establishment. Most of today’s conversions in Israel take place in IDF courses.
Meanwhile, the three major organizations representing modern Orthodox Jewry in the United States recently sent Prime Minister Netanyahu letters urging him and his government to do everything possible ahead of the IDF conversion vote to ensure that any legislation regarding conversions included a provision explicitly confirming the exclusive authority of the Chief Rabbinate.
The similar wording in the three letters and their timing suggest that the initiative came from Amar, perhaps as a countermeasure to the massive objection Netanyahu faced in the US in the summer when Rotem attempted to pass his original conversion bill. At the time, Jewish Federations and non-Orthodox movements applied massive pressure on the premier, galvanizing even Jewish senators in their efforts.
Two of the three groups, the Orthodox Union (OU) and the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI), refrained from addressing Rotem’s previous conversion bill, which would have given ultimate authority on conversions to the Chief Rabbinate. The Religious Zionists of America (RZA) vocally supported it while objecting to the current legislation, which would challenge the status quo of religious affairs in Israel by doing away with the Chief Rabbinate’s exclusive jurisdiction over conversions.

On Monday, Netanyahu met with all sides in the conversion controversy ahead of the key Knesset vote. The prime minister, his bureau chief Natan Eshel and coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin each conducted several meetings in an effort to bridge the gaps between Israel Beiteinu on one side and Shas and UTJ on the other.
“We owe it to these soldiers who sacrifice themselves for the state to ensure that they will have the recognized conversions that they seek,” Netanyahu told the Likud faction Monday. “We are working on a compromise, but if one cannot be reached by Wednesday, we will enable the bill to pass.”