United Torah Judaism’s highly contentious mikva bill which will ban the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements from using public mikvas for conversion ceremonies was formally passed into law on Monday night.
In the last few weeks, some of the most senior leaders of Diaspora Jewry in the US strongly urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the legislation due to the damage it could cause to Israel-Diaspora relations.
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said that it was “unfortunate” that the law was passed before a solution for the progressive Jewish movements and their conversion ceremonies could be found.
Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements expressed strong criticism of the government and the prime minister in the wake of the vote, accusing him of failing to follow through with commitments made to Diaspora Jewry.
The law, introduced by senior UTJ MK Moshe Gafni, will allow local rabbinates, which run public mikvas, to determine which organizations or government bodies it will permit to use its facilities.
This formulation avoided explicitly discriminatory language in the bill itself, but will certainly lead to discrimination against Reform and Masorti converts wishing to use public mikvas for their conversion ceremonies.
The law was first introduced by Gafni to circumvent a decision by the Supreme Court of Justice in February which ruled that the practice of a local rabbinate in Be’ersheva banning the progressive Jewish denominations from using its mikvas for conversion ceremonies was discriminatory and illegal.
In order to avoid the opposition of the Attorney General to the new law, the government has proposed that the Jewish Agency build up to four mikvaot for the use of the progressive movements in Israel.
The Reform and Masorti movements have however said they would strongly object to the proposal if the money for the new mikvas comes from the core Jewish Agency Budget, as seems likely, and not from the government.
The core Jewish Agency budget is funded exclusively by Diaspora Jewry, in particular by the Jewish Federations of North America.
The progressive movements have argued that it would be unacceptable for Diaspora Jewry to be forced to pay for the new mikvas, given that they are a solution to UTJ’s bill which deliberately seeks to ban the progressive Jewish movements from using public, state funded mikvas.
They also seek government funding for the maintenance of the mikvas and the salaries of any staff required to operate them, as received for public mikvas, although the government has not contacted the Reform and Masorti movements directly on its proposal.
The terms of the new law state that the it will come into effect in nine months from the day it is passed to allow time to build the new mikvas for the non-Orthodox groups, although they have expressed scepticism that these facilities will be constructed in such a short space of time, if ever.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform Movement in Israel said following the passage of the law that the legislation “breaches the clear promise of the prime minister not to legislate against the progressive denominations” and was damaging to Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry.
“This legislation jeopardizes the ability to have fruitful dialogue with the Israeli government, and we see it as a direct move by the government against millions of Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel and around the world,” said Kariv.
Yizhar Hess, director of the Masorti Movement in Israel, alleged that Gafni, not Netanyahu, was in charge of the government, and that the new law “polluted” the Israeli statute book.
“This is an un-Jewish and undemocratic law which turns a blind eye to deep processes happening in the Diaspora,” said Hess.
“Rabbis in North America, communal leaders and ordinary community members, who have dedicated their time and sometimes their wealth to defend the State of Israel and to support its needs are now looking at us and are amazed at the disdain, the condescension and the arrogance that the state which they loved is demonstrating, and their hearts have been broken. Some of them are actually in a state of mourning. A nation state that has decided to disconnect from its nation.”