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When Israel Most Needs Unity, Government Shaky over Conversion

March 19, 2002
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The issue of conversion threatens to undermine Israel’s shaky unity government, weakened by the 18-month-old Palestinian intifada and infighting among restless coalition partners.

Last week, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Interior Minister Eli Yishai decided to explore the possibility of a law that would recognize only Orthodox conversions, circumventing a February High Court of Justice ruling that recognized the validity of Reform and Orthodox conversions performed in Israel.

After Yishai threatened to pull his fervently Orthodox Shas Party out of the government, Sharon agreed to establish a committee of coalition faction leaders to examine the issue.

“Sharon promised us a law that will address conversion,” Yishai said, according to Israel Radio. “As far as we’re concerned, this is the conversion law.”

Representatives of the Conservative movement, from both Israel and the United States, wrote to Sharon urging him to exercise “extreme caution” in such a step.

“Any law seeking to overturn the Supreme Court decision,” the letter warns, “could lead, heaven help us, to a deep schism and an open confrontation between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel, and to the erosion of freedom of religion and conscience of Israeli citizens and residents.”

The Interior Ministry has been registering non-Orthodox converts as Jewish on their Israeli ID cards since Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein threatened to hold Yishai in contempt of court last week if he didn’t enforce the High Court ruling.

On Monday, for example, a group of Reform converts was registered — though the Reform movement objected to Yishai’s insistence on appending the date of the registration, a subtle means of indicating that it took place after the court ruling.

Supreme Court President Aharon Barak had given Yishai 10 days to explain why he was not carrying out the court ruling to register more than 20 Israeli residents who had converted to Judaism in Reform or Conservative ceremonies.

On Sunday, however, the State Prosecutor’s Office informed Barak that it saw no reason to open contempt of court proceedings against Yishai, since his ministry indeed was registering converts.

The Israel Religious Action Center, which represents the Reform movement in Israel, filed a complaint last week charging that Yishai was refusing to comply with the High Court ruling.

“After the Interior Minister continues to say that he does not intend to uphold the High Court ruling, the prime minister has no choice but to fire him,” said Nicole Maor, an attorney for the Israel Religious Action Center.

The Knesset tried to avert a crisis by passing new regulations abolishing the “nationality” entry from identity cards. Proposed by several fervently Orthodox Knesset members, the bill passed a Knesset committee by 9-4 vote.

That compromise was acceptable to Yishai. However, the new regulations won’t take effect for another 40 days, and they don’t bypass the entire High Court ruling.

The change would affect only new ID cards, not the nationality listing in the Interior Ministry’s population registry.

“We must think together and come up with practical solutions on issues of religion and state in order to avoid a situation where issues that affect our entire destiny as a people will be decided by the court,” Deputy Prime Minister Natan Sharansky, leader of the Yisrael B’Aliya Russian immigrant party, told JTA. “This will cause a great rift in the nation, during a period in which unity is one of the most important weapons in our arsenal.”

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