The chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu) works on matters of religion and state affecting the country. Rotem, who is an Orthodox Jew, has been conducting negotiations for over a year with Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and with Shas over formulating the conversion and civil partnership bills - the two laws the party promised its electorate in the last campaign season, mainly for those who immigrated from the former Soviet Union.
The conversion bill has been met with criticism from both the Orthodox and the Reform streams, whereas the proposal civil partnership bill is coming under attack from those in favor of civil marriage in Israel, who say that it will not be able to solve the problems of those "with no religion."
MK David Rotem, what's so good about your proposed conversion bill?
The law makes history in the area of conversions in Israel by authorizing municipal rabbis to perform conversions. It does not allow for overturning conversions, as was done in the past year by the ultra-Orthodox in the Chief Rabbinate and the rabbinical courts, and it turns all of Israel into one district in terms of conversions. That means that everyone will have more than one route for conversion. That is an achievement that will definitely go down in history.
The draft bill includes a section that relates to the Citizenship Law and reduces the chances of citizenship for those who have decided to convert but did not enter Israel under the Law of Return, in other words, those who have no ethnic connection to the Jewish people. Your critics claim that this is an opportunistic maneuver to bypass the High Court of Justice, and they themselves are likely to turn to the High Court in the future. What is your response?
There is no change in the Law of Return. There are people who don't see the forest for the trees. They are taking one small provision of the law, something of no importance, and shouting. There is no change in the Law of Return. There are those who come and demand that every convert receive citizenship automatically. That does not exist now and nor should it exist tomorrow. According to what the critics are saying about the law, tomorrow morning all the foreign workers in Israel will get up, decide that they're converting, and then they have to be granted citizenship automatically. The new law says that if you arrived in Israel as a non-Jew and decided to convert, afterwards you'll be able to submit a request to the Interior Ministry to receive citizenship. You won't receive it automatically, and that's the entire change. The change is in the Citizenship Law, not the Law of Return.
Who benefits from the law?
The law benefits anyone who is in Israel and wants to convert, because there will no longer be a monopoly of the rabbinical courts or the special conversion courts (headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman) over the issue of conversion. The municipal rabbis will also be able to perform conversions, and that will make the entire process easier. All of Israel will be one conversion district, so that if there is a municipal rabbi in your place of residence who is known for making trouble for converts or those in the process of conversion, you'll be able to go to the rabbi of another city. Afterward you'll be able to go to the same rabbi who converted you to have him register you for marriage. That will help anyone who is living in Israel and wants to convert, but some people are presenting it as though anyone who wants to convert is doing it in order to receive citizenship in the end. They are trying to present it as a great disaster, but that's not true. Converts who did not come here under the Law of Return will still be able to receive citizenship, but it will be subject to a special committee in the Interior Ministry.
Let's talk about the civil partnership bill. In recent years various proposals for such an arrangement have been submitted to the Knesset, and your proposal is the narrowest of them all. Have you given up the promise to your electorate? Were you alarmed by the opposition of the ultra-Orthodox?
It's true that the law speaks only of a situation in which both partners are not Jews according to halakha [Jewish religious law]. Even a trip of 100 kilometers begins with a first step. To date the establishment has not agreed to recognize even a single couple defined as having no religion. So I'm now solving a problem for 100 Israeli citizens, so what?
In Israel there are 318,000 new immigrants who are defined as having no religion, who cannot get married in Israel. According to a Knesset study, which you commissioned, a situation in which there is a wedding between two Israeli partners who both have no religion is very rare, 210 cases a year. Your draft bill is relevant for a much smaller number, because only a few of them will agree, as you propose, to undergo a procedure in a rabbinical court at the end of which they will be declared "goyim."
I'm not ashamed of that. They're also telling us that if we pass this law now, then we won't take care of the major civil marriage law. For 62 years the proponents of civil marriage told us "all or nothing." That's the wrong approach. Did they achieve anything? They, who tried for decades to pass this law, achieved nothing, and I say that I'm proud to solve a problem of 1 percent of the new immigrants. After all, the enemy of the very good is the excellent. I'm first taking an initial step, and the next step will be to expand it constantly.
Meaning? The next step is civil marriage for everyone?
The term "civil marriage" infuriates the ultra-Orthodox. I'm talking about a broad version of the civil partnership bill, and I want to remind you that it's the same law I've already proposed, and during the previous term the Kadima faction prevented its passage because they didn't want to anger the ultra-Orthodox.
What do the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox (of European descent) say about your proposals?
The Ashkenazi Haredim are angry at me. I don't know how they'll vote.
In the rabbinate and in the rabbinical courts there's a group of conservative rabbis, like Rabbi Avraham Sherman who overturned Rabbi Druckman conversions. The rabbis are operating out of a profound ideology, and they'll do anything possible to invalidate conversions they don't approve, and to reduce the number of couples receiving permission for a civil partnership. Why should your law have any influence on them?
Rabbi Sherman and the group of rabbis that you're talking about can do whatever they please. My draft bill determines that their invalidations of conversions will not be recognized except in very rare instances, with the personal approval of the chief rabbi. That is why I consider this law a tremendous achievement whose importance is still hard to grasp. And I'm saying this to you as a religious man: If I ever get to heaven, it will be because of this law.
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