Sephardi Chief Rabbi Feels 'Deceived' Over Amendment to Change Conversion Rules

Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar feels he was "deceived" by Yisrael Beiteinu, but still supports in principle amending the law that governs conversions, his associates said yesterday.

Until Sunday, MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu) had viewed Amar's support for his bill as a guarantee that it would easily pass into law, with the backing of all 11 MKs from Shas, the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party.

But then, objections from the two MKs comprising Degel Hatorah - a faction of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox list United Torah Judaism - proved that on matters of Jewish law, the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox still have the final word.

As MK Chaim Amsellem (Shas) put it yesterday, "mathematically speaking, two is greater than 11."

About two weeks ago, after months of negotiations, Rotem finally won Amar's backing for his bill, as well as verbal (though not written) backing from Shas' spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

But on Saturday night, the Degel Hatorah MKs, Moshe Gafni and Uri Maklev, met with Amar and accused Rotem of "leading him astray."

Yesterday, attorney Jacob Weinroth was given the job of mediating between Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu. Amar is now demanding two changes in the bill.

First, in the article that would permit municipal rabbis to perform conversions, rather than only the rabbinical courts, he wants to stipulate that such rabbis must first be authorized to do so by the president of the Rabbinical Court of Appeals - a post he himself currently fills.

The second would stipulate that the Chief Rabbinate has exclusive authority over all conversions.

"The rabbi was asked to sign a document that had undergone changes from what was agreed on in the negotiations," one of Amar's associates said.

"The rabbi didn't notice that Rotem had altered the language, and he feels deeply hurt. He is in great pain, but he doesn't want to sever ties with Yisrael Beiteinu," he said.

Amar's associates were also angry at the Shas MKs. "The Shas faction abandoned the rabbi at the front," said one.

"When there are budgets at stake, the Shas ministers and MKs know how to raise an outcry. But when we're talking about matters of importance to the nation of Israel, everyone is afraid," he said.

Shas chairman Eli Yishai accused UTJ yesterday of engaging in a "devil's dance" over the bill. Nevertheless, he also said at a faction meeting that "as the bill stands now, we oppose it. Period."