By Raphael Ahren, Haaretz, May 14th, 2010. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon yesterday pledged not to proceed with a controversial conversion bill before consulting with Reform and Conservative leaders in the U.S.
He said that in early June he will travel to New York, where over six days he will meet with the heads of the Reform and Conservative movements, as well as with senior Jewish federation officials.
The bill proposes to authorize Israel's Chief Rabbinate to engage in conversion matters, to end the monopoly of the conversion courts and to amend the 1952 Citizenship Law so that the right of citizenship will not apply to anyone converting in Israel who was not eligible for immigration prior to their arrival. The bill is intended to alleviate the bottleneck which aspiring converts now face, say Ayalon and co-sponsor MK David Rotem, both members of Yisrael Beitenu.
Opponents praised the initiative to try to ease the conversion process but take issue with clauses they say were inserted to ensure Haredi support for the bill.
Earlier this week, The Jewish Federations of North America - a group representing some 400 communities - and umbrella organizations representing non-Orthodox with Jews in the U.S., sent a strongly worded letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urging him to prevent the bill's passing.
"This proposed legislation will not only fail to achieve its forecasted result, but will dangerously alter the Law of Return by consolidating conversion power in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate in ways that would be disastrous to the unity of the Jewish people," the letter states. "Furthermore, it will undoubtedly alienate many North American Jews from Israel, widening an already precarious and growing rift."
Responding to this letter, Ayalon - who with Rotem had visited the U.S. Jewish community leaders in April about the bill - said: "We respect their opinions, and as I said before, we're going to continue our engagement with the Diaspora communities on this issue."
An official close to Yisrael Beitenu lawmakers told Anglo File any changes to the current draft would be minor and not change its core implications. "We will try to find a solution that satisfies both our needs and the demands of the Diaspora. But at the end of the day, Israel's needs to have priority," the official said.
Ayalon, who previously served as Israeli ambassador in Washington and as co-chair of the Anglo immigration assistance group Nefesh B'Nefesh, and Rotem asserted this week that they "intend no change to the status quo" regarding non-Orthodox conversions. "The intent of this law is to solve the problem of these 350,000 [Russian immigrants], without infringing on anybody's rights or privileges," Ayalon told Anglo File in his Knesset office. He asserted that his party intends to promote additional legislation making life cycle processes more fair for non-Orthodox Jews.
"The idea is not to find ourselves flooded by illegal conversions," Ayalon said, in a reference to foreign workers and Palestinian refugees. He pledged to institute a "mechanism that will distinguish" between sincere converts who studied in Israel or visited as tourists before converting, and those seeking to take advantage of the system.
But according to Nicole Maor, who directs the Israel Religious Action Center's legal aid center for new immigrants, the intent of the article related to the Law of Return is "to make life more difficult for non-Orthodox converts," as experience has shown that Orthodox converts are often more readily accepted by Israeli authorities than those belonging to other streams.
Furthermore, she argued the section is entirely superfluous. "There is no one in Israel today who is converting anyone who is [an] illegal [migrant]," she said. The religious action center is run by the local Movement for Progressive Judaism.
By explicitly empowering the Chief Rabbinate without mentioning any other religious streams, the proposed law would cause "devastating losses for the progressive movements in Israel," revoking all advances in fighting for recognition they made over the last 20 years, said Maor, an Australian-born lawyer. "The Supreme Court says there has to be pluralism and equality in the field of conversion because there is no law determining otherwise," she asserted.
"The purpose of this article is to circumvent a Supreme Court judgment from 2004, which said that the Law of Return applies to people who convert in Israel," contends Maor. "And the effect of this [proposed] article will basically be that the Law of Return doesn't apply to conversion in Israel. You don't need to change the status quo, [especially not] by passing a law that would for the first time in Jewish history differentiate between a convert and a Jew by birth."
"I'm not sure these [critics] have accurate information," responded Ayalon yesterday. "But this should be discussed in later meetings. I don't think it is useful to discuss these issues now."
To read the original article in Haaretz, click here