Elkin: Conversion bill delays good for country, coalition

Insiders to unity talks between Orthodox MKs, non-Orthodox movements and Jewish Agency say they are not bearing any real fruit.

Zeev Elkin 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Zeev Elkin 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The country is profiting from the fact that no real progress is being made in legislating the so-called conversion bill, coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) said on Tuesday.
“I’m one of those who isn’t exactly crying over the fact that the bill is being delayed, since Israel is benefitting in another sphere,” he told rabbis from the liberal-Orthodox Tzohar organization during their fourth international rabbinic conference at Jerusalem’s Leonardo Hotel.
Last summer, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu officially froze the legislative process on the bill penned by MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu). The measure, which would have enabled city rabbis to form conversion courts while officially placing responsibility for conversion in Israel under the Chief Rabbinate, had already passed the hurdle of Rotem’s Knesset Law Committee, but an uproar from the Diaspora Jewish community – primarily from non-Orthodox American movements, but also from bodies such as the Jewish Federations of North America – led Netanyahu to halt the legislation in favor of “unity talks” between Orthodox MKs, the non-Orthodox movements and the Jewish Agency.
The affair broke out at a time of particular tension between Netanyahu and the administration of US President Barack Obama, and voices from the North American Jewish communities subtly insinuated that their support and efforts for Israel on Capitol Hill would be made more difficult if such a bill, which they felt was a “slap in the face” that could change the balance of Israel-Diaspora relations, became law.
Meanwhile, insiders to the unity talks, in which neither Shas nor United Torah Judaism representatives are taking part, say they are not bearing any real fruit.
The bill’s proponents, such as the Orthodox Rotem, had described it as an urgent means to curb the growing problem of non-Jewish Israelis who want to convert, but who cannot under current conditions. They include some 300,000 non-Jews who immigrated from the former Soviet Union.
“Even if ten conversion laws would pass in the Knesset under Israel Beiteinu's formula – nearly nothing would change in conversion. This is why the bill is a less important issue than what people say,” he told the rabbis.
What is needed is a paradigm change, an understanding of why these people want to convert, said Elkin. And for the majority of converts, that is to be like their non-observant Israelis friends, neighbors and colleagues. But, he pointed out, the current conversion mechanisms “expect” a convert to be not like a high-tech programmer from Herzliya, but a yeshiva student from Bnei Brack, or maybe a Givat Shmuel resident, he said of the national-religious bastion.
“The solution,” he said, “will come – but in the next generation. The Israeli demography is very clear, and in a few decades most of the Jews in Israel will be religious. Today's majority sector – secular and traditional Jews – will become a mere 30 percent. So to really join the Israeli society will entail real conversion,” he said in reference to Orthodox conversion. Only in the future will there be no longer a need for the converting rabbis or conversion candidates to pretend that the future lifestyle of those undergoing the process will entail the observance professed. “Till then, someone will be lying – either the rabbinic establishment, or the converts,” said Elkin.