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Opponents alarmed as Israeli conversion bill moves ahead

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NEW YORK (JTA) -- Opponents of a controversial bill that could give the
Orthodox Rabbinate the final say over conversions in Israel are trying
to keep the bill from moving ahead in the Israeli Knesset after its
surprise introduction and passage by a Knesset committee.

David Rotem, chairman of the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice
Committee, pushed a controversial conversion bill through the committee
by a 5-4 vote on July 12, 2010.

For months, Israeli lawmakers have been discussing a bill that would put more power over conversion into the hands of Israel’s
Orthodox-dominated Rabbinate by giving local rabbis the ability to
perform conversions and giving the Chief Rabbinate oversight and control
over the whole process.

The bill, sponsored by Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset member David Rotem,
gained steam Monday with its approval in the Knesset law committee by a
5-4 vote. The bill now must pass three readings before the full Knesset
to become law.

Opponents are desperately trying to stall the process, at least until
the Knesset starts a two-month break next week.

“They have to bring it to the Knesset now for a first reading, and we
have to make sure that it will not happen,” the chairman of the Jewish
Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, told JTA.

Sharansky is leading a coalition against the bill that includes the
leaders of the North American Jewish federation system and the
non-Orthodox Jewish religious movements in the United States.

In a statement this week, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto said it "strongly supports the Jewish Federations of North America" in its opposition to the bill.

Ted Sokolsky, president and CEO of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, said the bill fails to  "respect the views of Jews from all denominations, including Conservative and Reform, and does not recognize their legitimate stake in Israeli policy."

He added: "At a time when Israel's right to exist is constantly questioned, the Jewish people cannot afford to be dangerously divided by such legislation. Only through united collective action on the part of all segments of our community, can we advocate for Israel's well being and maintain our vibrancy as a Jewish people."

Rotem’s bill originally was intended to ease the conversion process
within Israel and make it easier for non-Jewish Israelis of Soviet
extraction to obtain conversions and marry within Israel.

Despite its intent, opponents warned that the bill would consolidate control over conversions in the office
of the Chief Rabbinate and drive a wedge between Israel and the Diaspora
by carrying the risk that non-Orthodox conversions performed in the
Diaspora could be discounted in Israel. In addition, they said the bill
would affect the eligibility of converts for the Law of Return, which
grants the right to Israeli citizenship to anyone who is Jewish or at
least has one Jewish grandparent.

The opponents urged Rotem to revise the proposal. They believed they
had a deal in place with Rotem to hold off on the bill pending more
discussion after Rotem came to the United States in April to discuss the
bill with them, and after a number of meetings between Sharansky and
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Several top Israeli
officials, including the justice minister and minister for Diaspora
affairs, had agreed to work with Sharansky on altering the bill.

But Rotem caught Sharansky and the Diaspora leaders by surprise by
bringing the bill to a committee vote this week; Sharansky was given
only a day’s warning. The move set off a maelstrom of criticism from the

The CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, Jerry Silverman,
called Rotem’s action a “betrayal.”

In a letter of protest from the president of the Union for Reform
Judaism that was signed by 14 other organizations, including various
arms of the Conservative movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote, “Rotem’s
actions are contrary to the assurances we received in meetings with him
and with others over the last several months.”

In an interview with JTA, Rotem was unapologetic about moving ahead
and said, “This bill will pass, no doubt.”

“I never promised anything,” Rotem said. “I told them all the time in
the meetings that if I will see there is a majority, I will bring it a
vote. No one can say I promised anything.”

In their discussions with Rotem, Diaspora leaders expressed concern
about an item in the bill that would have taken away the right to
automatic citizenship for anyone who comes to Israel as a refugee but
then converts to Judaism. Rotem removed that item before pushing the
bill through the law committee.

Now, he says, the bill has no effect on American or Diaspora Jews and
that this is solely an Israeli matter over which non-Israeli Jews
should have no say.

“I don’t know why they wanted to have discussions,” he said. “I came
to the U.S. I spoke to leaders, and I explained this is nothing that
touched the American community. It has nothing to with Jews in the
Diaspora. It is only an Israeli matter.”

Since Monday, Sharansky has engaged in a number of discussions with
Israeli lawmakers, including Netanyahu. The Jewish Agency chief said he
believes the bill will not come before the Knesset this week, and hopes
it will not be on the agenda before the two-month recess provides a
chance to alter or scuttle the bill.

Sharansky said he is pushing for Netanyahu and his Likud Party to
publicly oppose it.

“If it is clear Likud will not support it, it will not pass,”
Sharansky said.

“It is important for us, for the unanimity of the moment, that we
have to keep the pressure on,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, the executive vice
president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told JTA.

“I think it would be an error to think that in the political society
as dynamic and hyper-dynamic as Israel is that we are done with this,”
he said. “The people who care about these issues have to constantly keep
them on the agenda and explain why they are important to decision

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