Contentious hearing on mikve bill explodes

New MK Yehudah Glick blasts "arrogance" of haredi MKs.

USHERS REMOVE Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria from yesterday’s hearing of the Knesset Interior Committee due to her fierce opposition to parts of the government mikve bill she says will damage women’s rights. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
USHERS REMOVE Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria from yesterday’s hearing of the Knesset Interior Committee due to her fierce opposition to parts of the government mikve bill she says will damage women’s rights.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A Knesset committee hearing on Wednesday descended into scenes more akin to a soap opera than a parliamentary debate, with MKs trading barbs over a controversial bill which would prevent the progressive Jewish movements from using public mikvaot for conversion ceremonies.
Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria was removed from the hearing for her fierce remonstrations against parts of the bill she says will damage women’s rights, while United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni later stormed out when a representative of the justice minister questioned the legality of the legislation. Gafni introduced the bill earlier this year and it was passed in March in a preliminary reading.
Since some members of the coalition, including Azaria, opposed the bill, it was agreed that the legislation would not be advanced to its first reading until changes were made to preserve the autonomy of women when using mikvaot.
At the urging of Gafni, Knesset Interior Committee chairman David Amsalem (Likud) nevertheless held a hearing on Monday on the bill, despite the fact that it does not have full coalition backing.
Azaria strongly protested against the hearing, especially since Gafni has introduced a new version of the legislation which had not been sent to other coalition MKs.
The Kulanu MK shouted vociferously at Gafni for failing to send out the new version of the bill and argued that his bill would impair the independence of women wishing to immerse in a public mikve.
Amsalem had Azaria ejected from the hearing, and then promptly called for a five-minute break for deliberations with the various MKs as to how to proceed.
Gafni’s original bill stated that immersion in a public mikve could be conducted only in accordance with the instructions of the Chief Rabbinate and that preventing someone from doing so would not be a criminal act.
His legislation was introduced shortly after a High Court decision in February which ruled explicitly that preventing the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements from using public mikvaot is discriminatory and illegal.
The Reform and Masorti movements were outraged by the bill, but it also faced opponents from elements within the religious-Zionist community who were concerned that the bill would harm recently won rights for women not to be examined or questioned by mikva attendants when using such facilities for their monthly immersion.
During Monday’s hearing, Gafni said that the new version of his bill dealt only with the issue of Reform and Masorti use of mikvaot for conversions and would not change the current procedures in practice for women performing their monthly immersion.
This step seems designed to head off opposition to the bill from within the coalition, since none of the bill’s opponents, including Azaria, has objected to it on the basis of its discriminatory stipulations against the progressive Jewish movements, but rather due to the potential impact on women’s rights when using mikvaot.
Gafni said explicitly that he expects coalition MKs to back the bill, since the High Court decision constituted a change in the status quo on matters of religion and state.
The UTJ-Likud coalition agreement says that this status quo must be preserved, which Gafni and UTJ now interpret as meaning that should the High Court of Justice change the status quo the coalition parties are obligated to support legislation reversing the court’s decision.
However, a representative of the justice minister said during the hearing that the law would be effectively unconstitutional if steps were not taken to provide alternative arrangements for progressive conversion ceremonies.
Brand new MK Yehudah Glick spoke up in defense of the Reform and Masorti movements during the hearing, and decried what he called the “arrogance” of the haredi MKs for seeking to bar the conversion ceremonies of the progressive Jewish movements in public mikvaot.
“It saddens me, as someone who observes the Torah and mitzvot, that one group decides ‘we are the guardians of Judaism’ and others are destroying it,” said Glick in reference to the attitude of the haredi MKs to the progressive movements.
“Where does this arrogance come from? Why do you not draw them closer [instead]” he asked.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform Movement in Israel, said that he expects the prime minister and “all Zionist parties in the coalition” to unambiguously oppose the bill.
“Millions of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora are sick of discrimination, exclusion, and incitement, and the State of Israel must very quickly recompose itself on this issue,” said Kariv.