Stern threatens to quit coalition over conversion controversy

Stern’s bill would allow chief municipal rabbis to established their own conversion courts in conjunction with another two rabbinical judges.

Elazar Stern (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Elazar Stern
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Hatnua MK Elazar Stern threatened to quit the coalition on Wednesday following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to pull his support for Stern’s conversion reform law.
“I’m going to go all the way. If the conversion law doesn’t pass, then I won’t be a member of the coalition,” he said in an interview to Ynet.
A breakaway faction of a Knesset party requires one third of the faction’s MKs to leave together in order for the faction members to keep their seats.
Hatnua MK Amram Mitzna has expressed frequent frustration with the party’s continued presence in the coalition.
Stern said he was not in conflict with party leader and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, but that she was aware of his stance “with all the implications that this has.”
“She understands that with this kind of behavior from the prime minister, there must be a big question mark on what we are doing there [in the coalition],” Stern said.
“It will be difficult to be part of this government from a values perspective. If the law doesn’t pass, I will not be a member of the coalition, even if Tzipi Livni says that we [the party] are not leaving the government.”
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.
The proposals evoked serious opposition from numerous elements within the Bayit Yehudi party, the chief rabbis and the haredi political parties Shas and United Torah Judaism.
On Monday, it became clear that Netanyahu had withdrawn his support for the bill because he was not willing to further endanger the already strained political relationship between the Likud party and the haredim for fear of losing the ability to form the next government.
Stern initially proposed his reforms as legislation in the Knesset, and the bill reached the final stages of the legislative process, but it requires one more committee vote in order to reach the Knesset floor for its second and third readings.
Instead of completing the legislation, Stern agreed to change the legislation into a government order in order to avert a coalition crisis following Bayit Yehudi’s opposition to the legislation and the prime minister’s desire to appease the haredi opponents to the bill.
According to Stern, the prime minister agreed to pass the measures as a government order if he would halt the passage of the legislation.
In his interview with Ynet, Stern said that Livni “may have blinked” in her party’s position on the issue.
Stern now says he wants to advance the original legislation, but it is unclear if it can be voted out of committee or passed without the support of at least some coalition parties, especially Yisrael Beytenu.
Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef wrote to Netanyahu on Tuesday congratulating him for his “courageous stance” in preventing the passage of the conversion reforms.
The chief rabbi repeated his claims, and that of others, that the bill would lead to “terrible assimilation” since the conversions would not be accepted by many rabbis, and that therefore the conversions would not be valid and “non- Jews would assimilate within the Jewish people.”
Stern and other proponents of the bill deny such claims, noting that under the terms of the proposed law, all the rabbis on the new rabbinical courts would have ordination from the Chief Rabbinate, would have passed exams on the laws of conversion, and the chief rabbis would be the ones to give the final approval on the conversion.
Stern spoke out strongly against Netanyahu’s capitulation to the concerns of the haredi parties, saying that it was impossible to make progress on matters of religion and state.
“When the haredim are in the coalition, the kashrut system continues to be corrupt, and Shabbat is what it is now, and there’s religious coercion, and marriage and divorce are in their current state. But when the same situation continues even when the haredim aren’t in the coalition, because they might join the coalition, then what am I there for?”