Haredim reject conversion bill freeze

Liberal groups halt petitions to enable Sharansky-led talks on issue.

Natan Sharansky 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Natan Sharansky 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The agreement for an all-around moratorium on the legal actions that could change the status-quo of conversions in Israel seems to be accepted only by the liberal Jewish groups, while Shas and United Torah Judaism, who supported MK David Rotem's Conversion Bill in its recent Law Committee vote, were not part of such a deal. Rotem too said that he was not part of any such understandings.
The Prime Minister's Office had announced late Thursday night that the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements in Israel agreed to a nearly six-month freeze on their High Court petition demanding state recognition of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel. In return, the announcement continued, the government will halt the legislation on the conversion bill for that period.
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The deal was hammered out by cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser at the behest of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu “to find any way to preserve the unity of the Jewish people,” and maintains that there will be no change in the status-quo of conversions till January 1, 2011.
In the interim, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky will head a team including members of the non-Orthodox movements and of the government, to form the authority that would complete the legislation on the topic.
“The changes in the conversion laws should be reached through broad understanding, to prevent a schism in the Jewish people. Unity is a primary national interest, and I am determined to preserve it,” Netanyahu said.
Rotem had attempted in the recent Knesset session to put forth a law that would give municipal rabbis the authority to conduct conversions, but critics feared that the wording of the bill could strengthen the Chief Rabbinate, change the legal status of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel and affect the legibility of such converts to the Law of Return. Netanyahu was recently subject to massive pressure not only from the non-Orthodox movements but also the Jewish Federations of North America to halt the bill till further dialogue.
“We appreciate the premier's decision to use all his sway to keep the conversion bill, which bore the danger of splitting the Jewish people, from being voted on in the Knesset session,” Yizhar Hess, CEO of Masorti Movement in Israel said. “We accepted the premier's suggestion to convene for negotiations on formulating the conversion law in such as way that wouldn't rift the people. With a heavy heart we agreed to freeze the High Court petitions, which deal with delicate and intricate personal cases, in order to enable a quiet, professional process, based on mutual trust.”
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform Movement in Israel, lauded the premier “for preventing significant harm to the unity of the Jewish people, and giving precedence to acts of dialogue over unilateral, aggressive legislation.”
“The movements' acquiescence to freeze the High Court procedures, a move far from being taken for granted, is proof that the non-Orthodox movements in Israel and abroad believe in the necessity of dialogue,” Kariv said. “We hope the appropriate ways to solve the severe conversion crisis in Israel will be found, along with the recognition of the pluralistic nature of the Jewish people.”
The Jewish Federations of North America’s President and CEO Jerry Silverman welcomed the agreement as "significant."
"We truly support this process of a dialogue table, which allows the participants time to discuss this important issue appropriately and reach a solution that protects the bonds between Israel and the Diaspora," Silverman said. "We are also thrilled that Natan Sharansky will be leading the process."
A spokesman for Shas, however, said on Friday morning that his movement were not part of any such deal, and did not accept it. Shas Chairman and Interior Minister Eli Yishai reiterated in this weekend's Yom Leyom newspaper the importance Shas sees in passing Rotem's law. MK Uri Maklev's spokesman reiterated that his party, UTJ, had only supported the bill because of the resistance it was facing from the Reform movement, and not because of their inherent acceptance of it. We are not surprised that the premier didn't involve us in these talks, nor do we expect to be part of them, he stressed.
Rotem himself told The Jerusalem Post that he was not part of the understandings, and did not know if he would even be a side in the planned talks. The Knesset is on a four-month recess now, Rotem said, and there could be no legislative work advanced this period anyway.