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Rancorous Exchanges Mark Conversion Bill Debate

Proposal to allow municipal Chief Rabbis to head rabbinical conversion courts was the subject of a stormy Knesset Law Committee session on Monday.
By Hillel Fendel
First Publish: 3/8/2010, 1:30 PM / Last Update: 3/8/2010, 1:49 PM

A new law that would allow municipal Chief Rabbis to head rabbinical conversion courts was the subject of a stormy Knesset Law Committee session on Monday.

The law has been promoted by the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party, headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, but the hareidi-religious United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and Shas parties object to it.  All three are members of the government coalition - meaning that a coalition crisis is looming.

MK David Rotem of Israel Our Home, the chairman of the Law Committee, agreed to push off a committee vote on the bill until tomorrow. “If we can’t reach an agreement,” Rotem warned, “I will bring this bill to a vote in the Knesset even if it leads to the breakup of the coalition.” Cabinet Secretary Tzvi Hauser convened a meeting of party representatives last night to ward off just such an eventuality.

Rotem notes that in the past, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel enabled every duly-appointed municipal Chief Rabbi to convert non-Jews to Judaism and issue a certificate to that effect. The decision was later changed, but “because of the bottle-neck that has developed in the conversion process, we wish to restore the situation to its previous state.”

Former MK Michael Melchior, a supporter of the bill, explained, “We are in the midst of a struggle over the Jewish character of the State of Israel. The hareidi position, though legitimate, stands in opposition to the way in which conversion was always performed in Israel, and against the rulings of the Chief Rabbis of Israel… This law is an attempt to find a solution that will enable conversion according to Jewish Law in a reasonable and gracious way – something that is critical for the future of Israeli society and Aliyah.”

The MKs of UTJ and Shas say that conversion must only be done according to Jewish Law, and therefore object to the proposed bill. When asked to explain what about the current proposal does not jibe with Jewish Law, however, no answer was forthcoming. Yair, an aide to UTJ Law Committee MK Uri Maklev, told Israel National News that he could not answer this question because “I am in a meeting,” and Yitzchak, an aide to Shas Law Committee MK Avraham Michaeli said that only Shas Party spokesman Ro’i Lachmanovitch could answer; when contacted for his response to the question, Lachmonovitch said similarly that he was busy and could not answer.

Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar previously agreed to the law, but Rotem announced at the start of the committee session that he had been informed that the rabbi had withdrawn his support.

Though the various religious sectors generally cooperate constructively, the session was marked by angry exchanges between UTJ MK Moshe Gafni and yarmulke-wearing Rotem. Gafni said, “I don’t know why we cooperate with the right-wing and the national-religious; you [plural] are the worst!” Rotem responded in kind, “I also don’t know why we cooperate with the beards and black hats.”