Amsellem: I Support Jewish Conversion in Accordance With Rabbinical Law

In an interview with Haaretz readers ahead of Israel's January elections, the head of the Am Shalem party stresses his respect for all people, including gays, and his thoughts on how to tackle the conversion problem.

MK Chaim Amsellem, chairman of the religious and right-wing Am Shalem party, was a guest at the Haaretz editorial offices Thursday to answer readers' questions. This was the sixth in our series of encounters with politicians ahead of the election on January 22.

Have you always supported public transportation on the Sabbath?

I have always supported the minority not imposing its opinion on the majority and finding logical solutions in the framework of rabbinical law to enable that majority to live its life. Just like I don’t want to have other people’s opinions imposed on me, I don’t want to impose my opinion on others.

What is your opinion on the controversial Shas television campaign ad, which showed the wedding of a Russian bride who is converting?

The Shas campaign isn’t only a racist and repulsive campaign, it is also entirely contrary to the ruling of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef himself. I support conversion in accordance with rabbinical law – properly! – and in a way that is lenient and brings those who are descendants of Jews (“Seed of Israel”) closer.

Would you agree to recognize a conversion by a rabbi from Progressive Judaism? And what, in your opinion, is the solution for Seed of Israel whose daughters were born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers?

This is precisely the classic case of Seed of Israel. His father is Jewish and his mother is not Jewish. He needs conversion. It is necessary to take a lenient and welcoming approach if the Rabbinical Court is convinced of the sincerity of his intentions to join the Jewish people and to take upon himself Judaism and its ordinances. As for a Reform rabbi, any conversion that isn’t done by a kosher rabbinical conversion court is not a conversion.

And this especially applies to an Israel Defense Forces soldier who endangers his life for the collective good of Israel. If he proves his great desire to join the Jewish collective, he must be enabled to do this if he is prepared to undergo the conversion process in all its elements.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, an important Orthodox rabbi, said recently that the religious public must start relating to homosexuals as Sabbath violators – that is, as no worse than Sabbath violators. What do you, as a rabbi, say about this? In addition, quite a number of Orthodox rabbis have participated in conferences for gay peoples' religious organizations. Would you also attend?

I already said long ago that I am in favor of respecting every human being as a human being, even when he transgresses the will of the Torah. I did not hear Rabbi Lichtenstein’s remarks. As for various meetings, [I take] each case on its merits. I do not rule out any individual, and even in the Knesset they have representation.

I very much admire you and your actions, but as an inhabitant of Samaria [the northern West Bank], I would like to know your position regarding the evacuation of the settlements.

If the question is about the illegal settlements, I think that approach is incorrect. It is necessary to act in accordance with the government’s decisions. There must not be anarchy here and people must not take the law into their own hands. Thank God the Land of Israel is spacious; there is enough room to settle and there is no need to look for unnecessary provocations.

At the same time, where people are there by permission and with the authorization of the governments of Israel, it is necessary to evince great sensitivity. Uprooting Jews from their homes is a trauma. The uprooting of Gush Katif [the Disengagement from Gaza in 2005] is a bleeding wound in Israeli society. I think that for the majority of the settlements beyond the Green Line, thank God there is a consensus today. The settlement blocs will remain [Israeli] forever and in any situation. Although [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu has declared his support for two states for two peoples and has never retracted this statement, apparently there is no real partner for real processes.

I think a majority of all Israeli society would support a peace process if it is convinced that, in its wake, there really will be true and lasting peace in the land. Evacuating settlements as a down payment or as an agreement to the process is a diplomatic and tactical mistake.

Do you have right-wing opinions, like it says in the newspapers? Do you support the approach that the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem will be under Jewish sovereignty, the Arab neighborhoods will be under Palestinian sovereignty and there will be a special arrangement in the holy basin?

I support the Bar-Ilan speech [Netanyahu’s 2009 speech in favor of a two-state solution] and any hypothetical question on such sensitive issues is irrelevant today. And answers to it would be a mistaken tactical political approach."

Previous guests at the Haaretz editorial offices were Knesset Finance Committee chairman MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) and the chairwoman of Hatnuah, Tzipi Livni. On Sunday the chair of Meretz, MK Zahava Gal-On, participated in a conversation with Haaretz surfers and last week Vice Prime Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon was a guest.

Moti Milrod