Tension Mounts in Coalition Over Conversion Bill

YERUSHALAYIM -

A coalition crisis emerged on Tuesday as the Jewish Home party and Tzipi Livni’s Movement party clashed over bringing the latter’s conversion reform bill to the Knesset plenum for a vote.

The drama began to unfold in the Knesset Law Committee on Tuesday when chairman MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beitenu) declared his intention to conduct a vote in  committee and send it on for its final reading in the Knesset plenum as early as Wednesday.

In response, Jewish Home said that the move contradicts the coalition agreement, as well as agreements reached with the chief rabbis, and is causing a coalition crisis.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, warning that “if this bill becomes law it will turn the Jewish people in Israel into different camps, creating a situation in which one group will not recognize the conversion process of another group, which could lead to the keeping of independent conversion and family records [sifrei yuchsin].”

The chief rabbis concluded their letter by stating that the responsibility for such an outcome would rest on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Minister of Religious Affairs Naftali Bennett, and demanded that they stop the bill immediately.

Meanwhile, Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs, MK Eli ben Dahan (Jewish Home) sent a letter of his own to Netanyahu requesting that he intervene to halt the progress of the bill, since Jewish Home objects to it in its present form.

Netanyahu refused to comply with the request and said the bill will go forward.

Last week, it was reported that Movement struck a deal whereby it would support the coalition’s legislative agenda — including the chareidi draft bill, the electoral reform bill and referendum on territorial concessions — in return for coalition support for the conversion bill authored by Movement MK Elazar Stern. The bill allows for the chief rabbi of any town to set up his own conversion court, essentially taking the process out from under the supervision of the chief rabbinate and loosening the restrictions on conversion.

It was also agreed that the bill would be brought for committee discussion in the present Knesset term and for passage in the next session, after the Pesach recess. According to the deal, Stern agreed to withdraw his objections to the chareidi draft bill in exchange for support for his bill. Stern’s objections against the draft bill were mainly against allowing Hesder yeshivah students to serve only 17 months, while chareidim and others are required to serve 36 months.

Jewish Home MK Orit Struck angrily denounced the coalition’s handling of the matter in the Knesset on Tuesday, noting that it violated all coalition agreements and swept away countless hours of discussion and debate aimed at reaching a consensus on the bill. If this is the case, she said, “we too will not see ourselves as bound by coalition agreements to the end of the session.”