Amiram Barkat, Haaretz, Nov. 21, 2006
Converts will no longer be recognized as Jews under the Law of Return, according to a bill formulated by the Chief Rabbinate and presented to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert a few days ago. The revolutionary bill is now awaiting a decision by the prime minister whether to make it a government-sponsored bill.
The bill was initiated by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar in an effort to block the possibility that the High Court of Justice could recognize Reform conversions carried out in Israel. Amar expects the government to adopt the initiative after other solutions proposed by the state to the High Court, such as a recent suggestion to establish a second Ne’eman Committee to discuss conversions, seemed no more than stall attempts.
The Chief Rabbinate said Monday the proposal was an egalitarian one that would withstand the scrutiny of the High Court. It argued the bill would “close the loophole” in the Law of Return that allowed foreign workers to convert in order to receive Israeli citizenship.
However if the law passes, it is likely to lead to a major crisis between Israel and the Diaspora.
The bill would give rabbinic courts and the Chief Rabbinate sole authority over conversions, as another bill, which did not pass, had also stated. The main element in the bill is a change in the clause defining a Jew for the purposes of the Law of Return. At present the clause defines a Jew as a person born to a Jewish mother or who converted to Judaism. The bill proposes that an the only individuals recognized as Jewish by the Law of return will be those born to a Jewish mother.
In the past, the Orthodox political parties had attempted to change this clause to include only Orthodox converts in accordance with halakha (Jewish law). This demand was rejected by successive Israeli governments due to concern over relations with Jewish communities outside of Israel, especially the Jewish establishment in the United States, where non-Orthodox Jews predominate.
The Chief Rabbinate argued Monday that Interior Minister Roni Bar-On supports the initiative. However an Interior Ministry spokeswoman said Bar-On was not familiar with it.
The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the legal advocate of the Reform Movement in Israel, called Monday on Olmert to reject the Amar initiative, which it said would “bring about a rupture between Israel and most of the Jews in the world.”
IRAC’s Rabbi Gilad Kariv said Monday, “It turns out that Rabbi Amar’s hatred for non-Orthodox streams is so great that it leads him to harm the basic principle that there is no difference between a convert and an individual who is born Jewish.”
MK Zevulun Orlev, the chairman of the National Union-National Religious Party, expressed his support Monday for Amar’s bill, which he said would “protect the unity of the Jewish people and prevent a rift that would be caused by recognizing Reform conversions.” Orlev added that the passing of the bill would be a test of the ability of Shas as a member of cabinet to impact the Jewish character of the state.
The Conservative Masorati Movement in Israel said it opposed Amar’s bill, which it called an attempt to detour around the High Court of Justice.