PM Binyamin Netanyahu
PM Binyamin NetanyahuIsrael news photo: PMW

On Thursday evening it was announced that a compromise has been reached regarding the controversial conversion bill.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office announced that the vote on the conversion bill will be postponed for a period of six months, and at the same time the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and the Masorti Movement will suspend their petitions to the High Court against the conversion bill. During this time a special team headed by Jewish Agency Director Natan Sharansky will formulate agreements that will later assist in completing the legislation process. Representatives from the Jewish movements as well as government representatives are expected to be a part of the special team.

The bill has been a source of controversy ever since it was first brought to the Knesset Law Committee, since it stipulates that conversions must take place according to Jewish Law. The bill would determine that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is the sole body authorized to deal with conversions, meaning that all conversions will be carried out only after the convert “accepts the burden of Torah and commandments according to Jewish Law”.

For explanation of conversion according to Jewish law, click here.

On July 12 the committee allowed by a 5-4 vote for the latest proposal on the conversion bill to be voted on in the Knesset for its first reading. According to Israeli law a bill must pass three readings before it becomes law. The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and the Masorti Movement, as well as Reform and Conservative groups in the United States have expressed their objection to the law that would formally end their attempts to gain the ability to perform Israeli-recognized conversions.

The bill has also caused tensions between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party. MK David Rotem, a religious-Zionist member of Yisrael Beiteinu has promoted the conversion bill, while Netanyahu went on record as saying: "I will not lend my hand to any legislation that will cause a split in the Jewish People", referring to the opposition expressed to the bill by Jewish groups in North America.

MK Rotem attacked the Prime Minister and said: “He is mistaken and is misleading others. This law does not divide the nation. It has nothing to do with conversions performed abroad. It rather comes to make it easier for new immigrants to convert here, adding courts and the like. Reform and Conservatives have been exerting pressures on everyone during the past two weeks, and suddenly Netanyahu gives in.  He is the one who asked me to come to an agreement with the religious parties on conversion, and that is what I did. Now he forgets about all that, and opposes the law without even having read it seriously.”

Another supporter of the bill is the Shas party headed by Interior Minister Eli Yishai.Yishai has said that if the bill does not pass, “it will force [religious] families to keep family trees, and will lead to a deep split in the people. Not passing this law will lead to a grave spiritual danger for the Jewish nation.”

Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Chief Sephardic Rabbi has also expressed his support for the bill and went so far as to say that the religious parties in the coalition should leave it should the law not be passed. During a radio interview, Rabbi Amar said: "If they were to listen to my advice, they would all stand as one person with one mouth and one heart and tell [Netanyahu]: it's either the Conversion Law or we leave.”

Amar also said that the split mentioned by Netanyahu would actually occur and be much worse and irrevocable if the conversion law does not pass: “The Reform Jews are using the diplomatic situation to threaten the Prime Minister. They sit there [abroad] and they want to dictate our lives [in Israel]. I told the Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, that if G-d forbid the High Court allows a Reform conversion, we will be splitting the nation into two parts.The result would be that one part of the nation would not marry the second part. This is not a game... this is not a social crisis. This is a tearing apart of the nation into two nations, and the ones who will lose by it are the ones who do not abide by the Torah and commandments. We will not be able to marry them. Such things have happened in the past.”