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Knesset begins debate on bill aimed at limiting conversions

JERUSALEM, March 31 (JTA) — A controversial conversion bill that some warn could drive a wedge between Israel and Diaspora Jewry has reached the Knesset floor. The bill, which this week faced the first of three Knesset votes, known as readings, would make all conversions conducted in Israel subject to confirmation by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Introduction of the bill Monday in the Knesset came two weeks after the Cabinet gave its approval to a legislative initiative that would bar the legal recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel. Israel’s Orthodox parties, with 23 seats in the 120-member Knesset, have demanded passage of the legislation as a condition for staying in the coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Orthodox parties originally had sought broader conversion legislation that also would apply to Israeli residents who undergo conversions abroad, but they gradually backed off from that initiative. “We would like the [legislation] to be more broad, but we also know what we can achieve at this point,” Knesset member Avraham Ravitz, of the United Torah Judaism bloc, said Monday. Supporters of religious pluralism in Israel warned that the conversion issue 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 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 Monday outside the Knesset, warning that the legislation was ripping apart the Jewish people. 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. But the court did not explicitly recognize non-Orthodox conversions, saying at the time that it would be up to the Knesset to pass the appropriate legislation. At a meeting of the Knesset coalition Monday, it was decided that after the first vote on the bill, the parliamentary process would be put off to give time for reaching a compromise between the Orthodox parties and the Conservative and Reform streams of Judaism. The Orthodox parties had been pressing for a first vote on the bill before the Knesset recessed for Passover next week and before April 1, the date the Supreme Court had set for the matter to be dealt with in Parliament. Even if the bill becomes law, non-Orthodox conversions of Diaspora Jews performed outside Israel would continue to be recognized. In an effort to postpone the first Knesset vote, Third Way Knesset member Alexander Lubotsky, an observant Jew, tried unsuccessfully this week to broker a compromise between the Orthodox parties and Reform and Conservative leaders. Lubotsky, who had been appointed to represent the government coalition on religious legislation, 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. Conservative and Reform leaders said they were willing to put off their own ongoing court battles over the conversion issue to seek a compromise, but the Orthodox parties said the first Knesset vote must go ahead.