Knesset Committee Rubber-stamps Haredi Authority Over Conversions

Bill will give Chief Rabbinate authority on conversions to Judaism in Israel, angering Reform and Conservative Jews at home and abroad.

The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee yesterday passed, by one vote, a new version of the bill giving the Chief Rabbinate the authority on matters of conversions, which has raised the ire of Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel and abroad.

Committee chairman David Rotem and MK Alex Miller (both Yisrael Beiteinu ) voted for the bill, as did MKs Avraham Michaeli (Shas ), Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism ) and Michael Ben Ari (National Union ). Opposed were MKs Einat Wilf (Labor ), Yohanan Plesner and Shlomo Molla (both Kadima ), and Dov Khenin (Hadash ). Likud committee members were not present for the vote.

Knesset session, May 3, 2010

A statement released by Kadima after the meeting said: "Netanyahu has given in to Haredim and the Likud has fled. The intentional absence of the Likud members has led to the victory of the stinking deal between Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-Orthodox parties, at the expense of Zionist and Diaspora interests."

The vote came at the end of a stormy session in which opposition lawmakers, as well as Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, slammed the law, which recognizes Orthodox conversions in Israel without making reference to conversions under the auspices of their movements.

"Recognizing Orthodox conversion, and not that of other movements, will make Diaspora Judaism feel that they are being outlawed. It's stupidity. The prime minister should take an unequivocal stand and make sure the law does not pass," Sharansky said.

The United Torah Judaism MKs were initially going to vote against the bill, which is intended to make it significantly easier to convert to Judaism. MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism ) told the committee he had opposed the bill because of the power it grants municipal rabbis to rule on conversions. Such authority "should not be given to every rabbi appointed in every little town. A person who wants to join Judaism has to go through a lengthy process. It can't be shortened. I don't know any other kind of Judaism," Gafni said.

However, they changed their minds and supported it reportedly because they felt its content was being maligned for no reason. "The law in fact does not change the status quo with regard to the responsibility of the Chief Rabbinate for conversions in Israel," Gafni also said.

Rotem told Haaretz on Sunday that he will be presenting a softer version of the bill after the vote on its first reading, which he says can be done because of its vague wording, which "says that the Chief Rabbinate is responsible for conversion in Israel, but it does not say that it will receive exclusive responsibility for this."

Rotem said he intended to meet with representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements to involve them in the bill. He added that he wanted to "pin down" the requirements of the ultra-Orthodox by the vote on the bill, because their demands had kept on growing.

Wilf said yesterday: "The State of Israel should remember that legislation on conversion has significance to Jews all over the world. I can't understand why Jews who came to Israel by virtue of the Law of Return and see themselves as Jews, need to undergo an additional conversion. I am ashamed that elected MKs of the Zionist state debase themselves before the rabbinate.

MK Nachman Shai (Kadima ) yesterday called the bill "a slap in the face of American Jewry," which he said had "played an important role in recent weeks in the reconciliation between Netanyahu and Obama."