The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee
The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on July 12, 2010. Photo by Tomer Applebaum
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday that a controversial conversion bill that was approved in a preliminary reading of the Knesset would not be brought before the plenum for a final vote.

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

The draft, which was prepared by committee chairman MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu), would assign the authority on matters of conversion in Israel to the Chief Rabbinate.

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

Likud MK's were absent from the vote. MK's David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu ), 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 the 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."

"Netanyahu is spitting in the face of the Jews of the Diaspora, seconds after he used them and their influence during his recent visit in the United States," they added

Chairman of the Jewish Agency and former Deputy Prime Minister Natan Sharansky strongly criticized the bill, claiming that it will damage relations with the Jewish Diaspora.

"By recognizing Orthodox conversions, and not the conversions of other streams of Judaism, it causes Diasporic Jews to feel that they are being made 'illegal,'" Sharansky said.

"This is stupidity. The Prime Minister needs to take an uncompromising stand on the issue and make sure that this bill will not pass," he added.

The head of the Reform Movement, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, told Haaretz on Sunday that MK Rotem, who initiated the bill, had "cut a deal with the Haredim according to which the Orthodox establishment Israel will, for the first time, have a monopoly on conversion - in direct contravention of Supreme Court decisions and promises made by political leaders, and contrary to the interests of immigrants."

Rotem rejected the claims against him Sunday, saying, "This is not a change of the status quo on matters of conversion. Through their claims, the Reform and Conservative communities are attempting to make some sort of gain at the expense of 400,000 new immigrants."

Rotem said he intended to put forth a much milder version of the bill following the preliminary reading. He planned to carry out the alteration through a vague formulation of the bill as it currently stands.

"The bill says the Chief Rabbinate will be given responsibility on matters of conversion in Israel, but it does not say it will receive exclusive responsibility to this. Prior to the second and third reading, I intend to sit with both the Reform and Conservative [representatives] in order to incorporate them into the framework of the law," Rotem said.

He said he attempted to prevent Haredim from setting additional conditions for the conversion issue.

"The Haredi demands are constantly increasing. The more the other communities clash with the Haredim, the more opportunities the Haredim are given to react," Rotem said.

Kariv, for his part, said Sunday that "the formula Rotem is using is very vague. He is playing with words. The minute the law says the responsibility is in the hands of the rabbinate, it will become necessary to turn to the rabbinate and consult with them every time there is a case of conversion. And this, after for 20 years our conversions abroad have been recognized in Israel by the Population Registry."