Conversion bill approved for final readings, generates political storm in Knesset

It is likely that instead of passing the bill into law which would still require a significant fight, the reforms will be passed as a government order instead.

Elazar Stern (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Elazar Stern
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
MK Elazar Stern’s conversion bill once again generated a huge political storm on Monday, with the Knesset Constitution and Law Committee approving the measure for its second and third (final) readings in the Knesset plenum, despite the opposition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Bayit Yehudi and the haredi parties.
The passage of the bill, which would allow municipal chief rabbis to establish their own conversion courts, to the full Knesset gives Stern greater leverage over his opponents in his attempt to pass the reforms set out in the legislation.
It is likely, however, that instead of passing the bill into law, which would still require a significant fight, the reforms will be passed as a government order instead.
Stern, from Hatnua, told The Jerusalem Post he would be happy if a government order was passed but that he would push ahead with the legislation if there were any further attempts to stall the reforms.
Although Bayit Yehudi opposed the legislation, the party came to a compromise agreement with Stern earlier this year, through the mediation of Rabbi Haim Druckman, one of the most influential national-religious rabbis in the country, after the prime minister intervened during the last Knesset session to avert a coalition breakdown and asked the two sides to reach an agreement on the issue.
But last week, Netanyahu suddenly withdrew his support for the government order for fear of further harming the Likud’s already badly strained relationship with the haredi parties, which bitterly oppose the reforms in either format.
Stern responded by pushing for the bill to be voted out of the committee, and was ably assisted by Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman who gave MK David Rotem, the chairman of the Constitution and Law Committee, the green light to convene the committee and hold the final votes required to send the bill back to the Knesset plenum.
Stern thanked his party chairman, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, for her help “the whole way,” and said the reform effort would not have progressed as far as it has without her.
He also explicitly thanked Liberman, Yesh Atid and Labor for not paying heed to “haredi threats” and thanked them for supporting the bill.
“This bill allows everyone to enter under the wings of Judaism,” Stern said.
“The committee’s approval of the bill is great news for the Jewish people. Thousands of Israelis will soon be able to convert in a dignified and considered Jewish manner. This is a rectification of a moral and values failing.”
Stern thanked the Reform and Conservative movements for not opposing the legislation, a position which was obtained by promising in the bill not to injure the status of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel achieved by those movements thus far.
Yesh Atid MK Rabbi Dov Lipman, one of the committee members who voted to approve the bill, insisted that despite the opposition of Bayit Yehudi, United Torah Judaism and Shas, the legislation was fully commensurate with Jewish law, Halacha.
“Halacha is very clear and supports the entire conversion process for those who are of Jewish descent [but not Jewish according to Jewish law],” Lipman said.
“Sadly, the haredi parties and Bayit Yehudi are tearing down, not building up, the Jewish home,” he continued.
“Instead of working in accordance with Halacha to draw the nation closer [to Judaism], they are in the grip of extremist opinions and are dividing the people. Every day that passes without us solving the problem of converting those of Jewish descent is a day that extremist Judaism defeats moderate Judaism.”
Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan (Bayit Yehudi) pointed out, however, that the party had agreed to the government order, and accused the prime minister of “playing political games over the issue.”
A separate source in the party explicitly criticized Netanyahu, saying that he had “broken his promises in the most blatant way possible.”
Livni also took aim at the prime minister for failing to live up to his commitments.
“The person who didn’t want Stern’s bill [to be passed] via the government got it instead via the Knesset,” she said during the Hatnua faction meeting on Monday.
“He who employs political tricks and breaks agreements should not be surprised that he has encountered a defensive operation around this legislation that makes Judaism more welcoming and which opens the doors for immigrants who live here and serve in the army, so that they can stop feeling as if they are second class citizens and join the Jewish nation,” Livni said.
MK Yariv Levin, the Likud’s representative on the Constitution and Law Committee, said that he agreed with the bill in principle but argued that when there was such great opposition to the reforms from Bayit Yehudi, as well as from the haredim, it should not be on the prime minister to take the lead and promote the government order.
A source in Bayit Yehudi said that party chairman and Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett is now likely to propose the government order to enact the reforms himself, given the developments on Monday in the Knesset.
The source said that most of the Bayit Yehudi MKs now understand that there is little chance of preventing the reforms from being passed and that it was better, from their point of view, to do so by government order rather than legislation.
Elements within the party opposed the legislation because they argued it wrested too much authority from the Chief Rabbinate, while some said that the conversions would not be reliable, alluding to the possibility that more progressive, albeit Orthodox, rabbis will establish conversion courts.
Stern’s bill would allow chief municipal rabbis to establish their own conversion courts in conjunction with another two rabbinical judges, thereby broadening access to the system and allowing more liberally inclined rabbis to conduct conversions than those who serve on the four national conversion courts.
Proponents of the bill argue that the reforms are necessary in order to convert larger numbers of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are of Jewish descent but not considered Jewish according to Halacha.
There are approximately 330,000 such people in Israel and those backing the expansion of the number of rabbinical conversion courts say that intermarriage between this sector and Jewish Israelis will increase if efforts are not made to convert them and their children.
Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of the ITIM religious services and lobbying group and who was involved in the drafting of the bill, welcomed the vote, saying it provided “a glimmer of hope” to the “hundreds of individuals who made aliya as Jews but aren’t recognized as Jews by the rabbinate and who are being alienated by the Jewish state.”
He said, however, that the full legislation was now obtainable and that greater efforts should be made to pass the bill instead of settling for the government order.
The legislation goes beyond what was agreed on in the government order and would give greater guarantees to the convert that his or her conversion will not be rejected by the Chief Rabbinate. It would also be much harder to reverse than a government order, which can be changed by a new government.