Following a heated debate, the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Monday approved the conversion bill for a first reading in the plenum.
Five committee members voted in favor of MK David Rotem's proposal, while four others opposed the bill, which would give the Orthodox rabbinate a monopoly on conversions to Judaism. Committee members belonging to the Likud party were absent from the vote.
During the debate, Committee Chairman Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu) said he was removing a clause linking conversions to obtaining Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, adding that additional revisions would be made before the second and third readings.
The controversial third clause states that anyone who “entered” Israel as a non-Jew (and did not have a father, grandparents or spouse who was Jewish and therefore was not eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return) and converted to Judaism at some later date, whether in Israel or abroad, would not be eligible for automatic citizenship.
Committee members who opposed to the bill protested the extended authority it grants the Chief Rabbinate regarding the conversion process. They also criticized the bill for determining that the conversion process will be carried out according to the halacha.
Committee debates Rotem's bill (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
MK Nachman Shai (Kadima) warned that the bill would result in a severe crisis with the American Jewish community, saying US Jews had persuaded President Barack Obama to change his attitude towards Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Shai predicted that the bill would not pass because "Bibi will not be able to handle the pressure," and suggested Rotem withdraw it immediately to avoid a crisis.
Lawmaker Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) said Reform and Conservative US Jews complained to him that "they are good for (money) and lobbying but are considered second class Jews.
MK Einat Wilf (Labor) told the committee, "Since the State of Israel's inception, Knesset members have been considered more important than any rabbi. This is the Zionist halacha."
In response to Wilf's comment, MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) said he was unfamiliar with "another Jewish Zionism," adding that the reformists' opposition to the bill convinced him to vote in its favor. "Judaism is not a missionary religion, and it is not looking to recruit more people. Even membership in a beer-drinkers' club is based on specific criteria," he said.
Following the meeting, MK Rotem said, "Following the removal of clause three, the bill does not concern US Jewry anymore."
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who took part in the meeting, told Ynet that Reform and Conservative Jews in the US are "Israel's soldiers in the world" and that the bill constitutes "a severe blow to them – if not outright betrayal."
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