Shas, UTJ reject conversion bill freeze

Reform, Masorti movements halt petitions to enable talks.

David Rotem 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
David Rotem 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 liberal Jewish groups, while the haredi Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, which supported Israel Beiteinu MK David Rotem’s conversion bill in its recent Knesset Law Committee vote, were not part of such a deal.
Rotem, too, said that he was not a party to any such understanding.
The Prime Minister’s Office announced late on Thursday night that the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements in Israel had agreed to a nearly six-month freeze on their High Court of Justice petition demanding state recognition of non-Orthodox conversions conducted in Israel. In return, the announcement continued, the government would halt the legislative process on the conversion bill for that period.
The deal was hammered out by cabinet secretary Tzvi Hauser, at the behest of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, “to find any way to preserve the unity of the Jewish people.”
According to the agreement, there will be no change in the status quo until January 1.
In the interim, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky will head a team including members of the non-Orthodox movements and of the government, to create 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 tried in the recent Knesset summer session to pass a law that would give present and former municipal rabbis the authority to conduct conversions, including for people who live outside their municipalities, 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 eligibility of such converts to citizenship under the Law of Return. Netanyahu was recently subject to massive pressure from the non-Orthodox movements and the Jewish Federations of North America to halt the bill’s progress until further dialogue.
“We appreciate the premier’s decision to use all his influence to keep the conversion bill, which bore the danger of splitting the Jewish people, from being voted on in the Knesset session,” said Yizhar Hess, director of the Masorti Movement in Israel. “We accepted the premier’s suggestion to convene for negotiations on formulating the conversion bill in such a way that wouldn’t split the people. With a heavy heart, we agreed to freeze the High Court petitions, which deal with delicate and intricate personal cases, 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.”
Jerry Silverman, president of the Jewish Federations of North America, 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 said on Friday morning that his movement was 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 bill.
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 its inherent acceptance of the legislation.
We are not surprised that the prime minister didn’t involve us in these talks, nor do we expect to be part of them, Maklev said.
Rotem told The Jerusalem Post that he was not party to the understandings, and did not know if he would participate in the planned talks. The Knesset was on a recess until October, and no legislation could be advanced anyway, Rotem said.