‘A rift in the Jewish people?’ Israeli gov’t advances controversial bill

The proposal “opens the market” of religious conversions beyond the state’s rabbinate, enabling city rabbis to perform conversions as well.

By Aryeh Savir, TPS

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved on Sunday the conversion bill presented by Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana (Yamina), angering the religious parties in the Knesset who warned of “a rift in the Jewish people.”

The proposal “opens the market” of religious conversions, allowing other courts to convert beyond the state’s rabbinate. City rabbis and heads of Yeshiva will be given the authority to convert and their conversion will be approved by the state.

Hailing the vote as “historic,” Kahana, an Orthodox Jew, said that Israel has “taken a step toward preserving the Jewish identity of the State of Israel: a state-sponsored conversion law, in accordance with Jewish law, under the auspices of the rabbinate.”

Kahana and his supporters explained that with a mass of hundreds of thousands of non-Jews living in Israel — mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who consider themselves as part of the Jewish nation — it is imperative to enable them quick access to Jewish conversion, thus preventing assimilation.

However, the religious and right-wing parties in the Knesset warned that Kahana’s bill threatens the future of the Jewish people.

The Chief Rabbis of Israel sent an appeal to the Ministerial Committee for Legislative Affairs warning that the bill “is cheating of the converts since anyone who goes through this procedure [presented by the government] will not be considered a convert by most Israeli rabbis.”

“We call for a halt to the procedure and for the establishment of a joint body that will propose a bill that will address the challenges while maintaining the unity of the people,” they stated.

The opponents of the bill explain that “opening the market” to other conversion courts may bring a situation in which conversions are not done according to Orthodox Jewish law and that they are exploited by various elements who wish to become Israeli citizens through conversion to Judaism.

The Religious Zionism party warned that conversion law “is a bad law that tears the people apart. The forceful move, made against the view of the Chief Rabbinate and without the backing of rabbis, will end in failure.”

“An absolute majority of Israeli rabbis oppose the move and therefore the conversions will not be accepted in most Israeli communities – the deception of the immigrants that Kahana leads must not be taken lightly. we call on the Israeli government to return from the dangerous reform to the future of the Jewish people,” it said.

Chairman of Religious Zionism Party Bezalel Smotrich noted that “beyond any controversy, this government has no legitimacy and moral validity to force far-reaching changes in religious-state relations as it leans on Israel’s enemies and those who have been fighting for years against the state’s Judaism.”

“Mansour Abbas [of the Islamic Ra’am party, a member of the coalition] will not determine who is a Jew. The conversion law is bad in itself and illegitimate in the way it is enacted and will be repealed at the first opportunity,” he stressed.

Chairman of United Torah Judaism party MK Moshe Gafni stated that Kahana, “with the help of his partners in this evil government, is harming the Jewish nation, is causing assimilation and is harming the Jewish people with all his might.”

“In any case – in any coalition, we participate in, a certain condition for us will be us to restore everything to its former state. The actions of the current government will disappear like hot air,” he added.

The bill still has a long and arduous road to pass before it becomes law, including three votes at the Knesset’s plenum, where the coalition has only a slim majority.