Bill Banning Reform Jews From Ritual Baths for Conversion Wins Israeli Cabinet Ministers' Approval

Only three ministers present for vote on measure proposed by ultra-Orthodox party; bill 'tramples freedom of religion and conscience of Jewish Israelis, would send a harsh negative message to Diaspora Jewry,' Reform Movement leader says.

MK Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism party, in December, 2015.
Emil Salman

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation decided on Sunday to back a controversial bill banning Reform Jews from mikvehs (ritual baths). The bill, proposed by MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism), will most likely come up for a first reading in the Knesset this week. 

Along with Likud's Yariv Levin, who chaired the meeting, ministers David Azoulay (Shas) and Yaakov Litzman (UTJ) voted in favor. The other ministers, including those from Kulanu who object to the wording of the bill, as well as ministers from Habayit Hayehudi, did not participate in the vote and were not present in the room.

The law is designed to bypass a High Court of Justice ruling that required religious councils to enable Reform and Conservative converts to immerse in the mikveh as part of the conversion ritual. According to the bill, all the public mikvehs will operate only according to the instructions of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Gafni said that the High Court ruling of last month violates the status quo on matters of religion and the state, while the coalition arrangement ensures that it will be preserved.

Nir Keidar

The bill came up for a vote in the committee on Sunday unexpectedly. Senior members of Likud and Habayit Hayehudi made it clear the day before that they wouldn’t allow it to be brought up for discussion. “There’s no consensus in the coalition surrounding the bill and therefore it won’t come up for a vote,” said a senior Likud member on Shabbat. Senior members of Kulanu explained that Minister Yariv Levin informed their party that he would not allow the bill to be brought up on Sunday.

But on Sunday morning, at a meeting of the heads of the coalition parties that preceded the committee discussion, it was decided that the bill would be discussed after all. “According to the agreement, it was decided that the law would pass in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, would come up for a preliminary reading and only afterwards would they change the wording based on agreements to be reached between the coalition factions. If such agreements are not reached, the law won’t pass,” a Likud source said.

After the agreement was reached, it turned out that Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who was present during the committee discussion, also has reservations. The committee discussions were discontinued, and Mendelblit and Levin consulted with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu approved voting on the bill already on Sunday.

The director of the Reform Movement, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, attacked the decision. “Government support for the mikveh law rewards those who refuse any compromise on matters of religion and the state and deepen the disputes in Israeli society and among the Jewish people,” he said. “This is legislation that bypasses the High Court as well as a basic law, and if approved it would crudely trample the freedom of religion and conscience of Jewish Israelis and would send a harsh negative message to Diaspora Jewry.”

Kariv added that “We would do well to mention that in total contradiction to the recommendation of the High Court, the Ministry of Religious Services refused for years on end to reach a logical compromise with the non-Orthodox movements regarding the mikvehs, and it is this stubbornness that led to the court decision. We hope that both on this issue and that issue of the Western Wall, the Israeli government will defend the principle that the State of Israel is the state of the entire Jewish people, with all its denominations and congregations.”

A senior member of the coalition said the measure would be torpedoed and therefore thought Sunday's vote bore little significance, telling Haaretz:

"The bill's passing of a preliminary vote is meaningless. It has been agreed that the legislation will be torpedoed unless agreement is reached with Habayit Hayehudi and Kulanu to advance it, and at the moment there is no agreed channel for doing so on the horizon."

The haredim wanted to see a symbolic achievement today and that's what they've got," the coaliton member said.

Habayit Hayehudi has said that its ministers deliberately didn't show up for the vote so as not to be forced to support a version of the measure which they oppose.

In response to the decision, lawmaker Michal Rozin of the left-wing Meretz party said "it is shameful to see the prime minister of Israel panicked by the political blackmail of the Orthodox establishment."

She added, that "as usual the coalition points a finger at the secular, conservative and reform communities in Israel and the world, and in essence drives a wedge between Israeliness and Judaism."