The government passed Sunday a highly controversial bill overhauling the way conversions to Judaism are handled in Israel, despite objections from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The massive political fight over the bill strained the already tense coalition, pitting Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and MKs from her Hatnua party against the prime minister and MKs from religious parties, despite the fact that the bill's sponsor is religious himself.
The legislation aims to expand Orthodox conversions in Israel, permitting municipal rabbis to oversee the process which until today was held by a few select facilities, causing massive red tape and what many describe as an exhausting process which prevented many from completing their conversion. The bill passed almost unanimously.
The bill's sponsor, MK Elazar Stern, from Hatnua, and himself a religious Jew, made it his mission since entering the Knesset to lead a reform in conversions, and even vowed to quit the coalition should the bill fall. According to him, the current process alienates scores of Israelis from Judaism.
The bill finally passed after a lengthy political struggle led by Hatnua Chairwomen Livni in the Knesset. Despite Netanyahu's reluctance to the bill, Livni successfully managed to push the bill through the legislation process, garner a majority and bring it to a vote. Netanyahu decided not to fight the bill a second time, clearing the way for its passage into law Sunday.
The bill was supported by all of the government ministers present at the vote, except one – rightist Housing Minister Uri Ariel from Naftali Bennett's religious-Zionist Bayit Yehudi party. Likud ministers Yisrael Katz and Gideon Sa'ar were absent from the plenum at the time.
Following the vote, Livni said "this is great news for hundreds of thousands of Israelis who where being treated as second-class citizens, and can now realize their right to be part of the Jewish people in the land of Israel."
Bennett, who also supported the bill, said "this is a balanced and reasonable decision taken by the government, and helps our converting brothers, allowing the process to be a positive experience which fulfills the demands of the Halacha (Jewish law). The future of the Jewish people is not a political toy for extremists on both sides, and I am happy this important bill passed."
The Bayit Hayehudi party – who besides Housing Minister Ariel supported the bill, but objected to its initial formulation – explained their decision by saying a number of important articles in he bill were changed.
For example, in the bill passed Sunday, Israel's Chief Rabbi is put in charge of finalizing all conversion certificates, while the initial bill failed to address the issue.
Regarding the issue of reform conversions, a contentious issue in Jewish politics, the initial proposal gave it some standing, along with conservative (or masorti) conversion, while the new version makes no mention of either. The new version also reintroduced religious oversight into the process, while the initial bill attempted to make it a purely administrative process undertaken in accordance with religious edicts.
According to Hatnua, today is a historic day and mends a long-standing historical injustice. The party says the vote is a massive win for Livni and the Stern.