Knesset may take final action on conversion bill next month

JERUSALEM, May 27 (JTA) — A controversial conversion bill will be brought before the Knesset for final action next month if no compromise is reached, Israeli Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said this week. The bill passed April 1 in the first of three Knesset votes known as readings, and further action was postponed to allow time for a compromise between Orthodox parties and non-Orthodox movements to be negotiated. Passage of the bill, which would cement in law exclusive Orthodox authority over conversions performed in Israel, was a condition of the religious parties when they joined the government coalition a year ago. Indeed, they have threatened to leave the coalition if the bill does not become law. Such a move could force new Israeli elections. Hanegbi’s comments, made at a coalition leadership meeting, appeared designed to pressure the Reform and Conservative movements into concessions. They are outraged over the bill because they believe it would delegitimize their practice of Judaism. Hanegbi blamed the Diaspora Jewish backlash to the bill on its opponents’ exaggeration of its implications and on the government’s failure to explain it properly. The bill, in its present form, would not affect the recognition of conversions performed abroad. For his part, Shas Knesset member Yitzhak Cohen said his party, which has 10 seats in the 120-member parliament, would pull out of the coalition if the bill does not pass the second and third readings by the end of June. This would end Netanyahu’s 66-seat majority in the Knesset, and could force new elections. But support within the coalition for the bill may be wavering. Third Way Knesset member Alexander Lubotzky, who has spearheaded compromise efforts on behalf of the government, hinted this week that his faction would consider breaking the coalition agreements and voting against the bill. “When we signed the coalition agreements, we did not realize the reaction the bill would draw in Israel and in the Jewish community abroad,” said Lubotzky. His faction has four seats in the Knesset. “It seems that in this case, unity of the Jewish people is more important than the coalition agreements,” he said. “We would find it hard to support the bill.” The pressure from the religious parties comes against the backdrop of a key Supreme Court hearing that was originally scheduled for May 13, but was postponed in deference to government requests. The court now has given the government until June 30 to explain why it failed to register as Jewish children who were adopted abroad and converted in Israel by the Conservative/Masorti movement. If the government does not respond, the court is slated to hold a hearing on the conversions July 9. Masorti movement leaders believe that the court will rule in their favor and legalize the conversions. If that happens, the Knesset could still legislate against the court ruling, said Rabbi Einat Ramon, spokeswoman for the Masorti movement. “But it would be more difficult” because such action would be seen as an attempt to weaken the powers of the judiciary, she said. Meanwhile, negotiations between the government, the religious parties and the non-Orthodox streams are scheduled for June 15 in a continued effort to reach a compromise, Ramon said. Referring to Hanegbi’s threats, she said it would show bad faith to rush through the legislative process without giving time for these negotiations to bear fruit. At the same time, Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky, who heads the Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party, was in New York this week to meet with U.S. leaders of the Reform and Conservative movement in an effort to reach a compromise on the conversion bill. The leaders refused to comment on the substance of proposals discussed. (JTA staff writer Cynthia Mann in New York contributed to this report.)

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