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Bill aimed at limiting conversions passes first parliamentary ballot

JERUSALEM, April 1 (JTA) — A controversial conversion bill that some warn could drive a wedge between Israel and Diaspora Jewry has passed its first Knesset hurdle. As the Knesset adjourned this week for its Passover break, the bill that would make all conversions conducted in Israel subject to confirmation by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate drew sharp criticism from the Reform and Conservative movements. The bill passed Tuesday in a vote of 51-32, with seven abstentions, in the first of three Knesset votes known as readings. It would normally go next to the committee stage, but a compromise under discussion may alter the usual legislative practice. Secular coalition parties had threatened to torpedo the bill by opposing the vote or abstaining, leading Michael Eitan, coalition chairman of the Likud Party, to propose a compromise to ensure its passage. All the coalition parties then backed the measure after Eitan signed a letter pledging a suspension of further steps in the legislative process, pending efforts to reach an accord with representatives of non-Orthodox denominations. Orthodox legislators, some of whom had threatened to leave the coalition if the bill was not passed on its first reading, maintain that it will not change the status quo. “There is nothing new here,”” said Transportation Minister Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party. “It is only setting into law an existing situation.”” Before Tuesday”s vote, President Ezer Weizman met at his residence with representatives of the various parties and tacitly endorsed the Eitan compromise as a way of defusing the controversy for now. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement”s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said Tuesday that the Knesset action “upset us greatly.”” At the same time, he said, it was too early to render judgment on the compromise effort. “We”re trying to determine how serious the compromise is,”” he said.
Indications exist that the compromise offers “some hope,”” he said, but there is not yet enough information to know whether it is a genuine effort to resolve the dilemma or merely a delay. Rabbi Einat Ramon, spokeswoman for the Conservative/Masorti movement in Israel, said, “We are very suspicious.”” “If a serious negotiation goes on and something worthwhile is offered, we will consider it.”” Opponents of the bill have expressed concern that once the legislation went into committee, changes would be made broadening its applications. If the legislation does go forward, the Orthodox parties intend to attempt during the committee stage to strengthen it by also applying it to conversions carried out abroad of Israeli nationals and residents. Now, Israeli officials are required to recognize both Orthodox and non-Orthodox conversions performed abroad. The Orthodox parties claim that the non-Orthodox denominations have used this as a “loophole”” under which Israelis or residents undergo a conversion course within Israel — and then travel abroad briefly, or send their papers abroad, to have a non-Orthodox conversion performed. Even if the bill becomes law, non-Orthodox conversions of Diaspora Jews performed outside Israel would continue to be recognized. Supporters of religious pluralism in Israel warned that the conversion law would create a rift between Israel and world Jewry. Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Avraham Burg lobbied both Labor and coalition Knesset members Monday, urging them to vote against the bill. “It can”t be that on the one hand, almost all the members of this House will turn to the leaders of U.S. Jewry — the majority of whom are Reform and Conservative — with requests for economic and political support in Israel, while they simultaneously cut them off from the Jewish people and Israeli society,”” he said. “Whoever speaks of a common destiny and unity of the Jewish people cannot sunder the Jewish people in the Diaspora.”” Jewish leaders in the United States have warned that passage of the conversion legislation could have a negative impact on their fund- raising efforts on behalf of Israel. Burg said Monday that the legislation also would have a devastating impact within Israel. He said that only some 400 immigrants each year request conversion through the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, compared with the tens of thousands who seek conversions through other streams of Judaism. “The meaning of these numbers is a vote of no-confidence by the immigrants in the existing system and solutions,”” he said. Representatives from the Reform and Conservative movements demonstrated this week outside the Knesset, warning that the legislation was ripping apart the Jewish people. Reform spokesperson Anat Galili declared that passage of the bill in the first Knesset vote would be a declaration of war on non-Orthodox Jews living in the Diaspora. Eitan”s compromise proposal to freeze the legislative process is now predicated upon the non-Orthodox denominations” agreement to freeze legal actions currently before the High Court of Justice, and to desist from further such legal actions while negotiations are under way. One case involves a petition filed by the Conservative movement on behalf of families seeking recognition of conversions for children they adopted from abroad and had converted on the Conservative Kibbutz Hanaton. The Supreme Court had set a hearing for next month on the Conservative petition. The Orthodox parties had been pressing for a first vote on the conversion bill before the Knesset recessed for Passover this week, to preclude the possibility of the court issuing a ruling granting legitimacy to the Conservative kibbutz conversions. Ramon of the Conservative/Masorti movement said that “it is unacceptable”” for the Reform and Conservative movements to withdraw their court cases in return for dropping the conversion bill because that would not achieve the movements” objectives. “We need to see progress in registering our converts and recognizing liberal, non-Orthodox movements in Israel,”” she said. In fact, Uri Regev, director of the Reform Israel Religious Action Center, said that while his movement would gladly discuss a compromise, they still intend to submit more petitions to the High Court on behalf of families who adopted and converted their children overseas. Those conversions have not yet been registered by the Interior Ministry, said Regev. If Eitan”s accord between the sides goes into effect, a coalition committee headed by Third Way Knesset member Alexander Lubotsky will attempt to broker a compromise between the Orthodox parties and Reform and Conservative leaders. Lubotsky, appointed to represent the government coalition on religious legislation, has proposed a compromise under which all converts would be listed on their identity cards as Jewish, but the population registry would specify what kind of conversion they underwent. Lubotsky said such a differentiation would serve the Orthodox rabbinate for purposes of marriage, but would also give Conservative and Reform converts recognition. Some Orthodox party officials have said this could form the basis of further discussions. Tuesday”s Knesset vote came two weeks after the Cabinet gave its approval to a legislative initiative that would effectively bar the legal recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel. The legislative action reinforcing exclusive Orthodox control over conversions was demanded last year by the Orthodox parties as a condition of their joining the coalition of the Netanyahu government. Those parties, which have 23 seats in the 120-member Knesset, are demanding passage of the legislation as a condition for remaining in the governing coalition. Reform and Conservative conversions have been performed in Israel for years, but have not been legally recognized. The Supreme Court ruled in November 1995 that there was no legal reason for barring that recognition for civil purposes. That ruling prompted the determination of the Orthodox parties to pass legislation foreclosing such recognition. (JTA staff writer Cynthia Mann contributed to this report.)