Bill to ban Reform, Conservative conversions at public mikvas passes hurdle

Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that a policy by some local religious councils of preventing the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations from using mikvas was discriminatory and illegal.

A mikva, the Jewish ritual bath [Illustrative] (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A mikva, the Jewish ritual bath [Illustrative]
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The government has proposed a compromise solution to the controversy over mikva access, whereby the Jewish Agency will fund the construction of up to four mikvas for the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) Movements in Israel. The proposal comes due to efforts by United Torah Judaism to pass a law banning the progressive Jewish denominations from using mikvas for conversion ceremonies.
On Monday morning, the Knesset Interior Committee approved the UTJ bill for its first reading in Knesset, which would allow local religious councils, which run public mikvas, the right to refuse access to the mikvas under its control. UTJ’s legislation was proposed following a Supreme Court decision in February which ruled that it is illegal for state-run mikvas to ban the Reform and Masorti movements from using these facilities for conversion ceremonies.
Coalition chairman and Likud MK David Bitan helped formulate the proposal whereby the Jewish Agency will build between two to four mikvas around the country for the progressive Jewish movements to use for conversion ceremonies. According to the plan, the Reform and Masorti Movements would be responsible for maintaining the mikvas once they are built.
Senior UTJ MK Moshe Gafni who proposed UTJ’s legislation said during the committee hearing that he was opposed to the notion of the Jewish Agency funding the construction of mikvas for the Reform and Masorti movements.
It is possible however that he and UTJ will not actively oppose the proposal. At the same time however, Director of the Reform Movement in Israel Rabbi Gilad Kariv said his movement would oppose the compromise if the money used to construct the mikvas were to come from funds provided to the Jewish Agency by Diaspora Jewry and not from the state.
Kariv added that the Reform Movement would only agree to the proposal if the state also funded the maintenance of the mikvas and the wages of any staff needed to operate them, something which was not offered by the government in its new proposals. “Like the issue of the Western Wall, this is a test of the declarations of the prime minister who said that all Jews should feel at home in the State of Israel,” said Kariv.
“Any expectation that Diaspora Jewry will fund the establishment of mikvas for Israeli citizens and residents is totally unreasonable and only a solution in which the government of Israel provides equal services to Jews from all denominations can be a basis for compromise.”
Kariv added that the new mikvas would have to be completed before UTJ’s law goes into effect for the Reform Movement to ageee to the new proposal.
Director of the Masorti Movement Yizhar Hess said similarly that the denomination would only accept the government’s proposal if the money used by the Jewish Agency for building the mikvas was earmarked by the government for this specific purpose, and did not come from private donations from the Diaspora or from funds given by the Jewish Federations in North America to the Jewish Agency.
“The Jewish Agency is not a vehicle for the government to ease its political problems,” said Hess, and said that even if the proposal is implemented UTJ’s law should not be approved by the Knesset.
“The coalition cannot permit itself to pass a law circumventing the High Court of Justice, especially one that demonstrates the most blatant disrespect to the majority of world Jewry and tens of thousands of Jews in Israel,” said Hess. “The state of the Jews cannot establish by legislation in the Knesset that there will be Class A Jews and Class B Jews.”
Despite strong criticism of the UTJ bill by the Reform and Masorti leadership, coalition MKs Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) and Shuli Muallem (Bayit Yehudi) said that they had nevertheless prevented any damage to the rights of women using public mikvaot. Gafni’s first draft of the bill stipulated that all mikva would be conducted only in accordance with the instructions of the chief rabbinate and Jewish law.
This wording led to concern from women’s rights groups that regulations issued in recent years which prohibit mikva attendants from conducting unwanted questioning or inspections of women seeking to immerse could be overturned. “The danger to women immersing has been removed, and I welcome this,” said Azaria. “This is a big achievement for religious feminism.”
Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie was however sharply critical of Azaria, saying that the Kulanu MK had given the imprimatur of legitimacy to a discriminatory bill. “The law circumvents the High Court of Justice, in contravention of commitments by Kulanu, has serious constitutionally problems, and is written ambiguously so that local religious councils can take the authority upon themselves to discriminate between different communities without limit and without criteria.
“This is a wretched law and another stain on the relationship between religion and state in Israel and spits again in the face of Diaspora Jewry and the community of women who immerse in mikvas.”