Israeli conversion bill sparks alarm in diaspora

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Opponents of a controversial bill that could give the Rabbinate the final say over conversions in Israel are trying to keep the bill from moving ahead in the Knesset after its surprise introduction and passage by a Knesset committee.

For months, Israeli lawmakers have been discussing a bill that would put more power over conversion into the hands of Israel’s Orthodox-dominated Rabbinate. The bill would give local rabbis the ability to perform conversions with the Chief Rabbinate having oversight and control over the whole process.

The measure, sponsored by Knesset member David Rotem of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, gained steam this week with its approval in the Knesset law committee by a 5-4 vote. The bill now must pass three readings before the full Knesset to become law.

David Rotem (seated) chats with Yisrael Beiteinu party leader Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, during a Knesset session in March. photo/jta/flash90/miriam alster

Opponents are desperately trying to stall the process, at least until the Knesset starts a two-month break next week.

“They have to bring it to the Knesset now for a first reading, and we have to make sure that it will not happen,” said Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Sharansky is leading a coalition against the bill that includes the leaders of the North American Jewish federation system and the non-Orthodox Jewish religious movements in the United States.

Rotem’s bill originally was intended to ease the conversion process within Israel and make it easier for non-Jewish Israelis of Soviet heritage to obtain conversions and marry within Israel.

Opponents, however, warned that the bill would consolidate control over conversions in the office of the Chief Rabbinate and drive a wedge between Israel and the diaspora by carrying the risk that non-Orthodox conversions performed in the diaspora could be discounted in Israel.

In addition, they said the bill would affect the eligibility of converts for the Law of Return, which grants the right to Israeli citizenship to anyone who is Jewish or at least has one Jewish grandparent.

The opponents urged Rotem to revise the proposal, and believed they had a deal in place with him to hold off on the bill pending more discussion. Several top Israeli officials, including the justice minister and minister for diaspora affairs, had agreed to work with Sharansky on altering the bill.

But Rotem caught Sharansky and the diaspora leaders by surprise by bringing the bill to a committee July 12; Sharansky was given only a day’s warning. The move set off a maelstrom of criticism from the diaspora.

Jerry Silverman, the CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, called Rotem’s action a “betrayal.” And a letter of protest from Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, stressed “Rotem’s actions are contrary to the assurances we received in meetings with him and with others over the last several months.” The letter was signed by 14 other organizations, including various arms of the Conservative movement.

Rotem declared, “This bill will pass, no doubt” and was unapologetic about moving ahead.

“I never promised anything,” he said. “I told them all the time in the meetings that if I will see there is a majority, I will bring it a vote. No one can say I promised anything.”

In their discussions with Rotem, diaspora leaders expressed concern about an item in the bill that would have taken away the right to automatic citizenship for anyone who comes to Israel as a refugee but then converts to Judaism. Rotem removed that item before pushing the bill through the law committee.

Now, he said, the bill has no effect on American or diaspora Jews and that this is solely an Israeli matter over which non-Israeli Jews should have no say.

“I don’t know why they wanted to have discussions,” he said. “I came to the U.S. I spoke to leaders, and I explained this is nothing that touched the American community. It has nothing to with Jews in the diaspora. It is only an Israeli matter.”

Sharansky this week has engaged in a number of discussions with Israeli lawmakers, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Sharansky said he believes the bill will not immediately come before the Knesset and hopes it will not be on the agenda before the two-month recess provides a chance to alter or scuttle the measure.

Sharansky said he is pushing for Netanyahu and his Likud Party to publicly oppose it. “If it is clear Likud will not support it, it will not pass,” Sharansky said.

“More than half of our people are living in the State of Israel,” Israeli President Shimon Peres told a group of federation lay leaders this week, according to a JFNA press release. “Almost half of it lives outside of Israel. We should remember that those living outside of Israel are not represented by the Knesset.”

According to the release, Peres pressed for more dialogue on the proposed bill so U.S. voices would get greater credence.