Conversion bill fight opens fissure in coalition

Jewish Home walks out on Knesset vote supporting PM, leading coalition chief to strike party’s bills off agenda

Itamar Sharon is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Then Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 22, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Then Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 22, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Jewish Home MKs boycotted the Knesset plenum on Wednesday in protest over a conversion bill which they say is being advanced in breach of coalition agreements, leading coalition chairman Yariv Levin (Likud) to announce punitive measures against the faction and intensifying a crisis within the government over the controversial bill.

MKs from the nationalist religious party refused to take part in a vote of support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a session initiated by the opposition to criticize the government on the one-year anniversary of its formation.

The opposition Wednesday activated a clause which forces the prime minister to attend the plenum and answer MKs’ questions if at least 40 of them sign a petition calling on him to do so. This is followed by a largely symbolic vote approving or disapproving of the premier’s response.

At the session, Netanyahu was attacked by opposition MKs over issues relating to floundering peace negotiations with the Palestinians and increased costs of living.

Jewish Home MKs, furious that a bill which would allow local rabbis to oversee conversions to Judaism in Israel is being advanced without their input, walked out of the session and refused to return and vote in favor of the prime minister.

Fearing an embarrassing defeat for the prime minister at the hands of the opposition, coalition leaders scrambled to delay the vote and managed to muster a slim majority, as Netanyahu implored party chairman Naftali Bennett to lead his party back to the plenum.

The party’s three ministers eventually agreed to return and vote and Netanyahu’s statement was approved with 48 votes to the opposition’s 44, enabling him to avoid an embarrassing loss.

In response to the rebellion, Levin said all bills initiated by Jewish Home MKs would be taken off the coalition’s agenda, including a bill initiated by Bennett to lower food prices and increase competitiveness in the consumer goods field.

The conversion bill, which on Wednesday passed the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Wednesday by a vote of 7 to 4, would allow local rabbis to form religious courts and formally conduct conversions to Judaism that would be recognized under Israeli law. Thus, the legislation would shift the power to officially convert people to Judaism from a small group of rabbinic judges in just four state rabbinic courts to as many as 30 local three-member rabbinic tribunals, and possibly even more down the road.

The bill is now set to return to the Knesset plenum for its second and third readings, which likely will take place during the Knesset’s spring session following the Passover break.

The Chief Rabbinate vehemently opposes the bill, saying it would lead to fragmentation of standards for conversion and confusion in the state religious system.

MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua), the bill’s primary sponsor, has vowed to push it through into law, and Law Committee chairman MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu) has promised to push ahead despite the criticism.

Jewish Home claims the proposed law represents a change to the status quo of religion and state. According to coalition agreements the party has the right to veto any change to such issues.

“This is a law that seeks to bring about a dramatic and unsupervised revolution to one of the most sensitive issues in the state of Israel,” party officials told Ynet on Wednesday. “We are open to negotiation, but advancing the bill without (our involvement) is something that cannot happen.”

“This bill provides the first ray of light for the more than 330,000 immigrants who came to Israel as Jews but are not halachically Jewish,” Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the ITIM Jewish Advocacy Center, who has worked to bring the bill to the Knesset floor, told JTA.

“At ITIM we speak to hundreds of immigrants each month who are struggling with their dual identities, and this bill will enable them to pursue conversion in a halachic and accessible way.”

Haviv Rettig Gur and JTA contributed to this report.

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