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Six-month freeze agreed to on conversion bill

NEW YORK (JTA) — An agreement has been reached to put a six-month freeze on a controversial Israeli conversion bill up for a vote in the Knesset.

According to the July 22 deal brokered between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet Secretary Tzvi Hauser and several Israeli non-Orthodox religious movements, the bill will be withdrawn for six months while a coalition of non-Orthodox Israeli groups led by Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, submits proposals on how to redraft the measure, Haaretz reported.

The bill, which was proposed by Knesset member David Rotem of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, passed a committee vote last week but still needs three Knesset readings to become law.

It has drawn significant opposition from Diaspora Jewish groups, including the non-Orthodox American religious movements and the Jewish Federations of North America, as well as Netanyahu and the Jewish Agency. They object to the bill’s giving the ultimate authority over conversions to the Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

"Change in the law on conversions in Israel must be carried out through broad agreement to prevent a split within the Jewish nation," Netanyahu said, according to Haaretz. "Unity is in the foremost interest of the State of Israel and the Jewish nation, and I intend to defend that principle with determination."

The Jewish Federations of America welcomed the delay.

"We truly support this process of a dialogue table, which allows the participants time to discuss this important issue appropriately and reach a solution that protects the bonds between Israel and the Diaspora," the group’s CEO, Jerry Silverman, said in a July 22 statement. "We are also thrilled that Natan Sharansky will be leading the process."

Interior Minister Eli Yishai, chairman of the haredi Orthodox Shas Party, which is a member of Netanyahu’s coalition, said last Friday that the freeze on the conversion bill had been coordinated between coalition member parties Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, but not with Shas.

"Our plan to present the conversion law to the Knesset at the start of the winter session, in late October, remains unchanged," Yishai said.

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