A Case of Shas Shtil: Religious Party Refrains from Introducing Amendment to Give Rabbinical Courts

Anticipating defeat, the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party decided Wednesday not to introduce a proposed amendment to the Rabbinical Courts Adjudication Law which would give the rabbinical courts the sole authority to validate conversions, marriages and divorces performed abroad.

Earlier this week, Shas indicated that it would not introduce the proposal if its political allies in Knesset, including Likud, could not guarantee sufficient votes to pass the measure.

A Shas spokesman blamed the National Religious Party for not supporting the bill. “It was the National Religious Party which let us down,” the spokesman told reporters. “Without the National Religious Party we could never have gotten a majority.”

MK Avner Sciaki of the NRP warned Shas Tuesday that he would not vote for the bill because under Jewish law it is forbidden to remind a convert of his/her conversion.

The bill was seen as an attempt by Shas to introduce through a back door changes in the legal definition of “Who is a Jew?” The ultra-Orthodox would like to push legislation through the Knesset which would invalidate the conversions performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis abroad.

The Knesset will adjourn for summer vacation next Wednesday and the Shas legislation cannot be acted upon until the House reconvenes in October.

LOST BATTLE BUT FIGHT CONTINUES

But although Shas has lost this battle, it has not given up the fight. Shas spokesmen said Wednesday they would now press for introduction of legislation making it mandatory for converts to Judaism to present a document to the Interior Ministry’s Population Registry which would provide full details of how and by whom they had been converted abroad.

The document would indicate whether an Orthodox rabbi performed the conversion. People who had undergone Orthodox conversions would then be recognized by the religious establishment as acceptable for a Jewish marriage. Reform and Conservative converts would not be recognized as valid Jews for marriage.

It is widely believed that with the failure of the Shas legislation, it will be easier for Labor to garner a majority of support for early elections and dissolve the Likud-led unity government. Shas had threatened Likud that it would support early elections if Likud failed to guarantee passage of the “Who is a Jew?” amendments.

Observers said that Labor had intensified efforts to secure a majority to pass a bill dissolving the Knesset and calling for new elections. Shinui MK Zeidan Atshe announced that he had changed his mind and would support early elections. Shas MK Yaacov Yosef said he, too, would support early elections because Likud “failed to honor coalition commitments to Shas.” Labor MKs reportedly received strict orders not to leave the country until the Knesset recesses in order to assure a majority of support for dissolving the government. Foreign Minister and Labor Party leader Shimon Peres scheduled a meeting Wednesday to evaluate the situation.

NOT MAKING THREATS

Meanwhile, a delegation of North American Jewish leaders, who made a last minute trip to Israel to lobby against the Shas proposal, held a press conference Wednesday.

Martin Stein, national chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, told reporters the leaders are “not making threats of withholding funds, which would be the absolutely worst solution.”

Shoshana Cardin, president of the Council of Jewish Federations, said the proposed amendments to the law affecting conversions would “directly or indirectly cause a significant portion of our people to feel disenfranchised, to feel that the essential unity which has characterized our relationship over these past 40 years has been shattered.”

(JTA correspondent Gil Sedan contributed to this report.)

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