The Constitution, Law and Justice Committee has rejected a last-minute appeal by religious parties for a revision to the Conversion Bill, and has cleared the way for the bill's second and third Knesset readings.
The appeal, led by the Jewish Home, Shas and UTJ (United Torah Judaism) parties, failed by a narrow margin of 6-5.
Voting for the revision were MKs Yariv Levin (Likud), Uri Maklev (UTJ), Avraham Michaeli (Shas), Orit Struk (Jewish Home) and Shuli Mualem-Rafaeli (Jewish Home).
They were outvoted by MKs David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu), Merav Michaeli (Labor), Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid), Elazar Stern (Hatnua), Moshe Mizrahi (Labor) and Yifat Kariv (Yesh Atid).
The vote came on the heels of an urgent debate Monday morning on a decision by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to withdraw support for the proposed Conversion Law - a move harshly criticized by the bill's liberal backers.
The bill itself has been at the center of political wrangling and controversy, and would greatly diminish, if not eliminate, the Chief Rabbinate's control over conversion in Israel.
The Jewish Home Party strongly opposes the law, but originally had agreed to let it come to a first reading, despite its right (as part of a coalition agreement) to veto laws pertaining to religion and state before their presentation to the Knesset, in order to gain support for its bill against freeing terrorists in exchange agreements. The Likud had promised to prevent the Conversion Bill's coming to a final vote, but did not live up to its promise. Jewish Home's compromise suggestions did not pass.
MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua), who initiated the bill, said it was “humiliating” for a person who came to Israel because his father was Jewish, to be told that he is not a Jew.
Judaism, however, is matrilineal and recognizes as Jews those who have a Jewish mother or an Orthodox conversion, so that allowing other conversion streams in Israel means that many Jewish groups will not accept converts as Jewish. This is the reason conversion was under the Chief Rabbinate's sole jurisdiction and why Israeli conversions are, up to now, recognized worldwide.
But liberal MKs - particularly from the Yesh Atid and Hatnua parties - are seeking a radical shakeup.
MK Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) said that the decision to freeze legislation of the law “is like giving a divorce decree to world Jewry, which is struggling with its Jewish and Israeli identity and wants to maintain a connection with the Jewish people.”
"Jewish renewal, as I understand it, welcomes any easing of the conversion process and seeks to open the door before anyone who wants to tie his fate with that of Israel,” she added. “The entrance into the Nation of Israel does not pass through one gate but through many gates, which are in line with the identity of each community, an identity that cannot always be measured with the halachic yardstick.”
MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) said that Israel has been “committing a crime against the converts” and even argued that “we are murdering with our own hands those who seek to join the Jewish people.” If the law does not pass, she threatened, “there will be a civil rebellion here.”
That opinion is not shared by many. Over 300,000 non-halakhically Jewish converts were allowed into Israeli during the Russian aliyah, and despite well-intentioned efforts to convert them, most saw no reason to do so as their connection to the idea of any religion was tenuous at best and they received Israeli citizenship anyway. It became politically expedient to blame the Chief Rabbinate's courts, which was sometimes the case, but the real problem was lack of interest in conversion.
The Conversion Law attempts to solve the problem of a large non-halakhically Jewish population in Israel's schools and society by changing the venue and prerequisites for conversion, but is a double-edged sword for potential converts.
MK Moti Yogev (Jewish Home) explained that “entrance into Judaism passes through Torah, and this is the only thing that maintained our wholeness for 3,500 years. This is not an entrance into a movie theater or a sports arena.”
"Easing conversion will lead to more serious assimilation,” he warned.