The Knesset Law Committee approved the first step of a new conversion-to-Judaism law – yet another step in an issue that has been controversial since the establishment of the State. It stipulates, for the first time, that conversions must be according to Jewish Law.
The committee, by a 5-4 vote, allowed the latest conversion proposal to be voted on in the Knesset for its first reading. If the bill passes, it then returns to the committee for emendations, if necessary, followed by two more readings in the Knesset. If it passes these stages, it becomes law.
“This is a most important step,” said Rabbi Chaim Druckman, head of the Yeshivot Bnei Akiva movement and head of the Conversion Administration of the Chief Rabbinate. “For the first time, if this bill is passed, it will be stated in law that only the Chief Rabbinate can authorize conversions.”
Over the course of decades, Chabad-Lubavitch and others have led a campaign to add the words “according to Jewish Law” to the Israeli-legal definition of a Jew – which currently states that he or she is one who was “born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism.” This campaign thus appears to be on its way to a successful conclusion.
The latest proposal was promoted by Law Committee Chairman MK David Rotem, a religious-Zionist member of the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party. It was also supported by MKs Ben-Ari (National Union), Miller and Michaeli (Israel Our Home), and Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism).
Voting against were Einat Wilf (Labor), Dov Hanin (Hadash), and Shlomo Mola and Yochanan Plesner of Kadima. The Likud MKs on the committee did not show up for the vote.
Rotem explained that the main changes proposed by the bill are the concentration of all conversion authorities in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate, including the ability to authorize Israeli rabbis to perform conversions, and the prevention in most cases of nullifying conversions retroactively.
Reform and Conservative groups in the United States object to the law, in that their ability to perform Israeli-recognized conversions will be curtailed. Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky, said today is a “black day for world Jewry. Most of United States Jewry feels that this law is a betrayal by Israel of their interests. The changes made to the proposal by the hareidi parties disenfranchise large parts of world Jewry.”
MK Rotem, on the other hand, said, “We are on the way to a revolution in conversion in Israel. We will no longer have retroactive nullifications of conversion [except by the rabbis themselves who performed the conversion in question – ed.], and it will be easier for couples in which one or both parties converted to Judaism to marry without bureaucracy [because local rabbis will be involved – ed.] We have done something very important for absorption of Aliyah in Israel.”
Rotem said he does not understand the Reform and Conservative objections: “The Reform website, as does the Ne’eman Commission, acknowledges that conversion must be done according to Jewish Law (Halakhah). I don’t want to make leniencies in the Jewish laws of conversion; I just want leniencies in the procedural aspects.”
Rotem’s spokesman, however, told Israel National News that the local rabbis are considered to be “less stringent, or should I say, more attuned to the needs and issues of those who come to convert.”
Speaking in the Knesset afterwards, MK Rotem criticized Opposition leader Tzipi Livni for criticizing his bill, “when she doesn’t even know what the bill says.” He said that he will ensure that the bill is presented to the Knesset for its first reading as early as this Wednesday, despite the Prime Minister’s opposition. “I am as concerned about the Prime Minister as I am about Livni,” he said dramatically – and with that he ended his speech. Likud MK Carmel Shama took him to task for his remarks, and the Kadima MKs began heckling Rotem for the upcoming inter-coalition clash they foresee.