Conversion bill could be shelved amid outcry — reports
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Conversion bill could be shelved amid outcry — reports

Netanyahu to convene coalition faction heads Friday for urgent debate on legislation that has drawn ire of US Jewry

Illustrative: An Israeli rabbinical court reviews a conversion case. (Flash90)
Illustrative: An Israeli rabbinical court reviews a conversion case. (Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to meet Friday morning with the heads of the factions in his coalition to hash out a solution to a crisis generated by a bill that would make the Chief Rabbinate the only body authorized to convert people to Judaism in Israel.

The meeting, scheduled for 10 a.m., comes amid reports that Netanyahu could freeze the bill, at least temporarily.

The conversion initiative, along with a move to nix the construction of a pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall, angered liberal Israelis and triggered an unprecedented clash this week between the Israeli government and US Jewry.

Both the daily Israel Hayom and Yedioth Ahronoth reported that Netanyahu is inclined to postpone a Knesset vote on the conversion bill, with Yedioth quoting senior coalition sources as saying it will be delayed for six months to allow the formation of a committee to hammer out a new version that will be palatable to the bill’s critics.

Defenders of the legislation, chiefly the ultra-Orthodox parties in the governing coalition, say it consolidates the conversion system in Israel and safeguards its integrity. Its critics say it is a betrayal of Jewish pluralism.

While the bill does not apply to conversions performed outside of Israel, Jewish leaders fear it will impugn the validity of Reform and Conservative Judaism worldwide.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, June 25, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, June 25, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

In addition to the torrent of criticism from abroad, the bill, which was given the initial go-ahead on Sunday in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, is being challenged from within the coalition, with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party submitting an appeal that ministers will debate next Sunday during their weekly meeting.

The bill would pull the government’s recognition of private conversions, namely those not conducted by the Chief Rabbinate. The approval by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation gives the proposal coalition support, which generally all but guarantees its passage in the Knesset, although Yisrael Beytenu’s appeal could undermine its chances of advancing.

In a statement following the vote on the bill on Sunday, Liberman warned the legislation would harm Israelis seeking to convert and asserted that “in its current form, it pushes away anyone who is trying to and wants to grow closer to Judaism.”

The bill “harms the chances of many Israeli citizens who immigrated to [Israel] under the Law of Return who serve in the army, do reserve duty, work and pay taxes to be counted among the Jewish people,” he said, referring to the law that allows any person who has at least one Jewish grandparent to claim citizenship.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman attends a conference in Jerusalem, February 16, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman attends a conference in Jerusalem, February 16, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The measure, which was drafted last month by the Interior Ministry, led by ultra-Orthodox Shas party head Aryeh Deri, appears to constitute an effort to circumvent a March 2016 Supreme Court ruling that allowed those undergoing private Orthodox conversions in Israel to become citizens under the Law of Return. The court did not take a stand on the religious question of rabbinic recognition of the converts as Jews, but did require Israeli civil agencies to treat them as Jewish for the purposes of naturalization.

Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers have vowed to fight for the bill, with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, leader of the United Torah Judaism party, threatening his party will bolt the coalition if it isn’t signed into law.

JTA contributed to this report.

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