Interior Minister and Shas Chairman Eli Yishai
Interior Minister and Shas Chairman Eli Yishai Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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Emil Salman
Prime Minister Netanyahu (center) at a cabinet meeting on June 6, 2010 Photo by Emil Salman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said he opposes the conversion bill proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu, which would give sole authority over Israel's conversions to the Chief Rabbinate, saying it will "tear apart the Jewish people."

Last week, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approved the draft on conversion reform, a bill that has sparked outrage among Reform and Conservative Jewish communities in Israel and abroad.

Click here for a detailed explanation of the conversion bill

Netanyahu, who has previously said he would block the proposed legislation from making it to a vote in the Knesset, on Sunday said he would ensure Likud ministers vote against the bill if it does reach the Knesset.

"The bill could tear apart the Jewish people," Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. "We will make the effort to stop the bill from reaching the Knesset, but if it is not removed, I will ask the Likud members and members of other parties to vote against it."

Meanwhile Sunday, Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) said that the absence of a conversion law would pose "an enormous spiritual danger to the Jewish people."

Sephardi chief rabbi Shlomo Amar also stressed the need for the conversion law, calling on the religious political factions to withdraw from the coalition if the law was not approved. "If they heeded my advice," he said, "they would all stand together with one voice and one heart and say 'it's the conversion law or we're leaving.'"

"The Reform Jews are using the political situation to blackmail the prime minister. They sit there and they want to dictate our lives," the rabbi told Kol Barama radio.
 

Minister of Minority Affairs Avishay Braverman slammed the bill during the cabinet meeting and said "it is not possible that this topic will be a raised for the Knesset's approval."

"It is inconceivable that more than 85 percent of U.S. Jewry would become second rate Jews," he added.

Under current practice, Israel recognizes only conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis inside Israel, but people converted by non-Orthodox rabbis outside the country are automatically eligible for Israeli citizenship like other Jews. The proposed legislation would give Israel's chief rabbinate the legal power to decide whether any conversion is legitimate.

The group most likely to suffer would be immigrants who converted to Judaism abroad and could now be denied Israeli citizenship.

The bill touches a raw nerve in the Reform and Conservative movements, whose presence is marginal in Israel, where Orthodox rabbis have a near monopoly over religious practices such as marriage and burial.

While staunch backers of Israel, these groups look worriedly at the prospect of the country's Orthodox religious establishment further entrenching its control, and in effect being the arbiter of Jewish identity. Passage of the bill would also be a blow to the legitimacy of non-Orthodox rabbis the world over.

Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Washington-based Religious Action Center of the Union of Reform Judaism, said the bill, if passed, would mark a crisis of the first order.

"It would be an enormous blow to the unity of the Jewish people and the principle of religious freedom in Israel," said Saperstein, who is visiting Israel to lobby lawmakers to drop the bill. "The American Jewish community will remain strongly engaged in Israel, but the message will be sent that the government of Israel does not accept our rabbis and our movement as legitimate, and it would make all our work much more difficult."

Of the world's roughly 13 million Jews, half live in Israel and most of the rest are concentrated in North America.

Israeli religious authorities' skepticism about the legitimacy of overseas conversions has been cited as one of the main causes of a growing rift between Israel and world Jewry.

The bill's sponsor, David Rotem, an Orthodox lawmaker from the largely secular Yisrael Beitenu party, has rejected the criticism, saying his goal was to make conversion easier for immigrants from the former Soviet Union who make up the majority of his party's voters. The bill empowers selected municipal chief rabbis to conduct conversions. Currently, all such power is vested in the chief rabbinate in Jerusalem.

Roughly 1 million people immigrated to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many with questionable ties to Judaism. Rotem has said his bill would allow would-be converts the freedom to shop around and look for an amenable local rabbi.

Last week's approval was needed before parliament could vote on the bill. It has to pass three rounds of voting before becoming law, a process that will likely take months.

Likud MKs were absent from the vote.  Rotem, Avraham Michaeli (Shas), Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism) and Michael Ben Ari (National Union) voted in favor of the new bill. MK's Shlomo Molla (Kadima), Yohanan Plesner (Kadima) and Dov Khenin (Hadash) voted against the bill.

Members of the Kadima faction attacked their Likud counterparts for skipping last week's vote.

"Netanyahu surrendered to the ultra-Orthodox and the Likud fled," Kadima MKs said. "The purposeful absence of the Likud MKs during the vote led to the victory of the putrid deal that Yisrael Beitenu struck with the Haredi factions, at the expense of Zionism and the Jews of the Diaspora."

This is one of the latest rifts between Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and despite attempts by both sides to cool tempers, a confrontation between the two figures appears virtually inevitable.

Votes by Yisrael Beiteinu ministers against the state budget this weekend, the foreign minister's appointment Friday of an acting UN ambassador without Netanyahu's consent and Lieberman's call for a "disengagement" from Gaza on the eve of the premier's Egypt visit - all have only exacerbated an already strained working relationship.