Israel Conversion Bill Passes first hurdle; Betrayal of US Jews?
With the conclusion of a particularly stormy session, the Knesset Law Committee passed MK David Rotem’s (Israel Beiteinu) proposal five to four in favor a first reading in the Knesset. The Likud faction absented the vote, and MK Gafni (United Torah Judaism) was removed from the plenum. MK Nahman Shai (Kadima) said to Rotem: “Bibi will not stand up to American pressure. He’ll only stand up to law.”

The Knesset Law committee passed the Conversion Law this morning (Monday) for a first reading. At the close of a stormy Knesset session, the Law Committee chairman and sponsor of the bill, MK David Rotem, insisted on conducting a vote to the displeasure of most of the participants. In the end, five supported the bill and four opposed. Committee members from the Likud faction did not participate in the session and the law passed with the support of Israel Beiteinu, Shas, and United Torah Judaism.

At the opening of the session, MK Rotem announced that he is rescinding the clause connecting conversion with obtaining citizenship as per the Law of Return and tried to calm the situation by adding that the bill is liable to undergo many changes before it is submitted for its second and third readings. His words, however, did not satisfy the bill’s opponents who objected mainly to the authority given to the Chief Rabbinate over conversions and defining conversions in Israel as those done according to Halacha and requiring the acceptance of observance of Mitzvot.

Caustic words were thrown around throughout the session, mostly between members of the Kadima and United Torah Judaism factions and Law Committee Chairman Rotem, who in the end removed MK Moshe Gafni from the plenum.

MK Nahman Shai (Kadima) warned during the session of a crisis with American Jewry and claimed that Obama’s change in his treatment of Netanyahu was due to them alone, and that they are the “most important factor for the continued existence of the State.” He estimated that the bill will fall in the end because “Bibi cannot withstand pressure” and therefore advised Rotem to give up on the matter now in order to prevent a crisis.

MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) expressed the feelings of the Reform and Conservative movements in the US, who have relayed the message that “we’re useful for political expedience but considered second class Jews.” MK Einat Wilf (Labor) came out against the halachic elements of the bill, saying “From the moment the State of Israel was established, Knesset Members have been considered more authoritative than any Rabbi. This is Zionist halacha, and there is Zionist halacha.”

MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judais) answered that there was only one Judaism and that he doesn’t recognize “another Zionist Judaism” that was established alongside it. Gafni added that at the outset he opposed the bill because it broadened the conversion arrangement with no restrictions—something that hasn’t happened for all my 20 years in the Knesset and gives any old Rabbi the authority to do the most significant thing in Judaism, something he didn’t expect to receive in his wildest dreams.” Nonetheless, he said, the opposition of the Reform movement convinced him that the bill was good, and in the end he voted in favor. “Judaism is not a missionary religion and it has no business adding more people to it. Even bars have rules without which no one would enter.”

Betrayal of US Jewry?

MK David Rotem claimed after the session that “due to the dropping of clause 3—the one relating to the Right of Return—the law is already unrelated to US Jewry. Rotem attacked Kadima faction members who he claimed made a coalition with the Reform “and would rather worry about their friends instead of the issue of conversion.” On the claim that the bill recognizes the exclusive authority of the Chief Rabbinate on the matter of conversion for the first time, he said that Shlomo Molla’s (Kadima) bill forbidding nullifying conversions, which fell last week, recognizes that as well.

Chairman of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky, who took part in the session, told the Ynet news agency afterwards that the reform and conservative in Israel are Israel’s soldiers throughout the world and the bill constitutes a “serious blow for them, not to mention betrayal.” He claimed that the basic idea of the bill was good, but the changes made to it are problematic and constitute a precedent that cement the monopoly over halacha.

Head of the Reform Movement Gilad Kariv, who also took part in the session but was not given the right to speak, said after the vote, “This is a black day and an embarrassment to the State of Israel. There’s a coalition here of Israel Beiteinu, the anti Zionist United Torah Judaism and Rabbi Kahane’s representative (MK Ben Ari).”

The Conversion Law seeks to transfer authority over conversions to local Rabbis, whereas today one can only convert through a specially recognized court. According to the new law, local city Rabbis throughout the country will also be able to convert someone and recognize him or her as Jewish. The process is supposed to revert the situation back to what it was before the establishment of conversion courts, when the authority to convert was also given to local city and neighborhood Rabbis.