Religious conversion bill moves ahead in Israel’s parliament, angering liberal Jews

By Matti Friedman, AP
Monday, July 12, 2010

Israeli conversion bill moves ahead, draws anger

JERUSALEM — Liberal Jewish groups were angered Monday after a parliamentary committee in Israel approved a bill that would give Orthodox rabbis more control over the sensitive issue of conversions to Judaism.

The Reform and Conservative movements, which are the largest Jewish denominations outside Israel but wield little clout inside the Jewish state, fear the new bill could increase the influence of Orthodox rabbis at their expense and undermine their own legitimacy and connection to Israel.

Nathan Sharansky, the former Russian political prisoner who now heads the Jewish Agency organization responsible for Israel’s relations with Jews abroad, said he had received angry calls from Jewish leaders.

“The meaning of this is a split between the state of Israel and large portions of the Jewish people,” he told Israel Radio.

Of the world’s roughly 13 million Jews, half live in Israel, with most of the rest concentrated in North America. Each Jewish denomination has its own requirements for people who want to convert, typically a prolonged process that involves studying Jewish tradition and accepting Jewish observance.

Under the current practice, Israel recognizes only conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis inside Israel, but people converted by non-Orthodox rabbis outside the country are automatically eligible for Israeli citizenship like other Jews.

The liberal Jewish denominations are concerned that the new bill, which would make minor changes in the conversion system in Israel while enshrining the control of Israel’s Orthodox religious establishment, could mean that immigrants who converted to Judaism with non-Orthodox groups abroad would now be denied Israeli citizenship.

Uri Regev, a rabbi who heads the religious equality group Hiddush, said the bill threatened to sideline the liberal Jewish denominations.

“This bill hurts Judaism outside Israel because it embraces the Orthodox monopoly here,” Regev said. He called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has yet to publicly express his position on the bill, to oppose it.

The bill’s sponsor, David Rotem, an Orthodox lawmaker from the largely secular Yisrael Beitenu party, rebuffed the criticism, saying his goal was to make conversion easier for immigrants from the former Soviet Union who make up the majority of his party’s voters.

“This will not affect non-Orthodox conversions performed abroad. The non-Orthodox denominations have no reason for concern,” he said.

Monday’s approval by the committee clears the way for voting in parliament. The bill has to pass three rounds of voting before becoming law, a process that will likely take months.

In another collision Monday between supporters and opponents of religious pluralism in Israel, police arrested a woman for carrying a Torah scroll at the Jewish holy site known as the Western Wall, in Jerusalem’s Old City.

The woman was part of a group praying at the wall to protest rules that forbid behavior straying from the strictures of Orthodox Judaism at the site. Carrying a Torah scroll is traditionally a male ritual.

Police said the arrest complied with a court ruling on acceptable behavior at the site. The woman was released on bail.

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