Israeli Lawmakers to Discuss New Bill Banning non-Orthodox Jews From Ritual Baths

Knesset Interior and Environment committee to debate bill, proposed by members of the religious parties and intended to bypass a High Court of Justice ruling.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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MK Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism party, in December, 2015.
MK Gafni (UTJ), who proposed the new legislation relating to ritual baths, in December. It was also sponsored by four MKs from Habayit Hayehudi. Credit: Emil Salman
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The mikveh bill is back. The Knesset Interior and Environment committee will debate the bill on Monday. The bill was proposed by members of the religious parties, and is intended to bypass a High Court of Justice ruling which permitted people who convert to Judaism with Conservative or Reform rabbis to immerse in public ritual baths in the course of their conversion.

The bill passed its preliminary hearing last March and comes to the committee for some amendments, following disagreements between coalition factions. The bill was introduced by MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism), and signatories include all Knesset members from his party and from Shas, as well as half the members of Habayit Hayehudi. The original and approved version states that “using a public purification mikveh, which is intended for immersion for purification or for conversion purposes, will only be permitted for halakhic immersion, conforming with the halakha (religious law) and with Jewish custom according to the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish law) and the rulings of the Chief Rabbinical Council in Israel.”

The bill evoked opposition not only by the Conservative and Reform movements but among other Orthodox groups, as well as by women who want to immerse without Orthodox supervision. The current round of debates is intended to soften the Orthodox opposition, leaving only the restriction on Conservative and Reform Jews.

During the debate, attention will focus on two female MKs, Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Habayit Hayehudi), who is a signatory to Gafni’s bill, and Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) who spoke out sharply against the original version. Azaria has recently left this committee, replaced by Akram Hasson from her party. Her spokesman said that her replacement and insertion into the Law, Constitution and Justice Committee is unrelated to the Mikveh bill, but is due to reorganization within the party. In any case, she intends to show up at Monday's debate and express her opinion regarding the bill.

Attorney Yizhar Hess, the CEO of the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel, said that “the bill meant to bypass the High Court is eroding Israel’s democratic identity. The mikveh bill adds insult to injury. If it passes it will deepen the rift that is developing between Israel and Diaspora Jews. The damage will be irreversible. One arm of the government is doing everything it can to uphold the arrangement reached at the Western Wall, while the other arm is opening another front, that of the ritual baths. It sometimes seems as if the government of Israel has declared war on the Jewish people.”

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