Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid issued harsh criticism in a faction meeting in the Knesset on Monday about decisions made Sunday by the government cancelling the conversion reforms approved by the last government and transferring the Rabbinical courts from the Justice Ministry to the Religious Affairs Ministry. Lapid said the two decisions were “an act of betrayal against women, new immigrants, and world Jewry.”The conversion reforms, approved by a cabinet vote in November 2014, permitted municipal chief rabbis to establish their own conversion courts, thereby allowing Orthodox rabbis with a more lenient approach to conversion than the rabbinate to convert greater numbers of non-Jewish Israelis of Jewish descent.
It was never actually implemented however, and was repealed on Sunday by a new cabinet vote and replaced with a severely watered down proposal that brings back the central control of the chief rabbinate over any regional conversion courts that might be established. “It’s a betrayal of new immigrants because this state says to them ‘it’s ok that you enlist [to the military], it’s ok that you’ll be killed, in death you’re equal to us but in life you are second class,” said Lapid on Monday, in reference to immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law.Lapid also claimed that the decision betrayed world Jewry “because the government told them yesterday that they are second class Jews." Opposition leader Isaac Herzog accused Netanyahu of following up on what he called attacks on Israel's democratic nature with attacks on Israel's Jewish nature. "His decisions on religion and state are a declaration of war on Judaism in Israel," he said. "The embarrassing U-turn by the government will cause great rifts inside Israeli society."Herzog's number two in the Zionist Union, MK Tzipi Livni, said Netanyahu had "changed Israel from a Jewish state into the state of the ultra-Orthodox, just in order to hold on to power." She said Israel relies on world Jewry in many ways but allows the country’s Jewish character to be dictated by the ultra-Orthodox.Meanwhile, Minister of Justice and Bayit Yehudi MK Ayelet Shaked hit back at critics of her party on Monday who have accused the national-religious faction of doing too little to prevent the repeal of the last government’s conversion reforms. The conversion reform law was actually opposed in its legislative format by Bayit Yehudi although the party agreed to pass a watered down version as a government order by cabinet decision. Speaking to Galei Yisrael radio station, Shaked said that the blame lied not with Bayit Yehudi but with the Likud party for giving in to haredi demands. United Torah Judaism and Shas vehemently opposed the conversion reforms and made their entry to the coalition dependent on the repeal of that law. “We had three options: drag the state to new elections, demand something of value, the Ministry of Justice, or establish a government with Herzog,” Shaked explained, arguing that joining the government was in the circumstances the right thing to do. “The Likud, against our stance, sold everything to the haredim… this was the reality of the coalition negotiations. All these accusations are coming from short-term memory.”Rabbi Shaul Farber, director of the ITIM organization that helped draft the conversion reforms, rejected Shaked’s argument and asserted that the issue had never been high on Bayit Yehudi’s priorities in the first place. “It is always easy to be a Monday-morning quarterback,” said Farber. “It is unfortunate that the conversion issue wasn't important enough for Bayit Yehudi to bring up in the coalition agreement, and it was Bayit Yehudi who forced the government to back off legislating on conversion even though the bill had made it's way through the committee process. They pushed a government order rather than a legislation, knowing how easily this could be repealed. History will not look favorably upon their decisions nor will the Jewish world” Shaked in her interview said that despite the decisions on Sunday, any new legislative initiatives on religion and state issues outside of what was included in the haredi coalition agreements would need Bayit Yehudi’s approval before it is advanced. “Every aspect of religion and state requires the agreement of all parties of the coalition. In the event that the haredim want to advance something and Bayit Yehudi opposes it, it will not happen,” she averred. Sources in Bayit Yehudi said that this could apply to the kashrut law Shas is trying to advance which would outlaw independent kashrut licensing authorities as well as any legislative requirements for the transfer of authority over the rabbinical courts and appointments to the Committee for Appointing Rabbinical Judges. In the face of the broad censure meted out to the haredi parties for having forced the repeal of the last government’s conversion law, Minister of the Economy and Shas Chairman MK Arye Deri struck back at the critics. He specifically referenced comments made by Yisrael Beytenu chairman MK Avigdor Liberman, who strongly denounced Shas and United Torah Judaism over the issue. Deri claimed that the law which the cabinet replaced the previous conversion reforms with was the same proposal that had been agreed upon between Yisrael Beytenu and then Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar in 2009. The new law still allows municipal chief rabbis to establish conversion courts but they will need express permission from the chief rabbinate to do so and the chief rabbinate will be able to select the other two rabbinical judges to serve on the court. Liberman’s office said simply that the party’s stance on the issue was “well known and clear.” Yisrael Beytenu has long advocated for conversion reform although its legislative efforts came up against severe legal difficulties and were ultimately not passed. Deri also accused Lapid and Livni of hypocrisy for his comments since, the Shas leader continued, Lapid and Livni tried to topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and bring in the haredi parties along with Labor to form a new government before the last elections. “We’ve had enough of this hypocrisy, we haven’t done anything new here, we are just trying to protect the status quo [on religion and state issues]” Deri concluded.
Religious affairs reporter Jeremy Sharon discusses Issues of religion and state