Amar pushes to amend Law of Return

PMO rejects chief rabbi's proposal to deny automatic citizenship to converts.

rabbi amar 298.88 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
rabbi amar 298.88 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Despite waning chances for success, Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar has not abandoned a push to amend the Law of Return so that converts to all three principal streams of Judaism - Reform, Conservative and Orthodox - would be refused automatic Israel citizenship. Amar hopes that by eliminating Israeli citizenship as an incentive to conversion, he will maintain Orthodoxy's monopoly. If Amar's proposal were approved by the Knesset, only Jews born to a Jewish mother or, alternatively, relatives of Jews currently covered by the Law of Return, would be entitled to automatic citizenship. The chief rabbi also proposes anchoring in law the jurisdiction of special Orthodox rabbinic conversion courts over conversions performed in Israel. However, according to a letter from the Prime Minister's Office obtained by The Jerusalem Post, chances that Amar's proposal will gain support, at least in the present political constellation, are slim. In response to a letter by Rabbi Barry Schlesinger, president of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement's Rabbinic Assembly, and Moshe Cohen, head of the movement, Director-General of the Prime Minister's Office Ra'anan Dinur wrote that "the Prime Minister's Office has no intention at this time of amending legislation regarding [conversions] or of adopting the chief rabbi's proposal." In an interview with the Post, Amar claimed he was not stubborn about amending the Law of Return. "I just want the Chief Rabbinate to be the sole body responsible for conversions," said Amar. "Just as we are responsible for weddings and divorces and kosher supervision, so too should we be the ones who convert." Amar said there was no such thing as a Conservative or a Reform conversion. "Either you are a Jew or you aren't a Jew. And if you don't believe in Torah then you are not a Jew." Amar said that the proposal to change the Law of Return was born of a desire to avoid arguing. "I'm willing to give all converts - Orthodox too - the same status for the sake of peace." Amar did not think it was degrading for a convert to be denied automatic Israeli citizenship. "Someone who converts does not do it for ulterior motives," said Amar. "He does not do it for money or for benefits. He converts because he believes that is the truth." The Law of Return allows offspring of a Jewish mother or those with Jewish fathers, grandparents or spouses to settle in Israel and gain citizenship. It was enacted by the Knesset on July 5, 1950. It was written in the shadow of the Holocaust with the goal of providing a homeland for those who were persecuted by Nazi Germany. Since November 2006, when Amar first drafted his proposal together with legal adviser to the rabbinic courts Shimon Ya'acobi, the chief rabbi has initiated meetings with representatives of most political parties, including Kadima, Labor, Likud, Israel Beiteinu, Shas and United Torah Judaism. On Sunday, Amar met with MKs from the National Union-National Religious Party. MK Benny Elon said after the meeting that he opposed any amendments to the Law of Return. "It's dangerous and wrong to mess around with the Law of Return," said Elon. "It would open up a Pandora's Box of problems." But Elon added that the amendment to the Law of Return was just one of several options Amar proposed to consolidate Orthodoxy's monopoly over conversions, which Elon said he supported in principle. Amar is attempting to push through legislation ahead of a pivotal High Court of Justice ruling on Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel. The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the legal arm of the Reform Movement and the Masorti Movement, petitioned the court to force the state to recognize Reform and Conservative converts converted in Israel as eligible for citizenship. The court postponed its ruling on the issue after the state, in its reply to the petition, said that it was setting up a special commission made up of representatives from the three streams of Judaism to reach a compromise. The commission, which has yet to convene, is known as the Second Neeman Commission. Rabbi Gilad Kariv, associate director of IRAC, said that while the letter from the Prime Minister's Office was positive, he was still concerned that a change in the present political constellation might revive the Amar proposal. "Representatives from the Reform and Conservative movements are meeting Monday at the Board of Governors to discuss the subject of conversions," said Kariv. Rabbi Phillip Meltzer, former president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America and cochairman of MASA, said that if Amar succeeded in pushing through his proposal the result would be "disastrous." "We hope that the prime minister recognizes that at this difficult time it would be a disaster to drive a wedge between North America's Jewry and Israel." Meltzer added that on a religious level it was "obscene" and a "disgrace" for the chief rabbi of Israel to discriminate against converts. Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein, an ultra-Orthodox expert on conversions who heads the International Rabbinic Committee on Conversions, said he doubted leading haredi rabbis such as Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv or Rabbi Nissim Karelitz would support Amar's proposal. "Anything that would hurt the interests of true converts would not have our support," said Eisenstein.