Absence of Orthodox frees lawmakers to liberalise Israel

By Nathan Jeffay, November 7, 2013
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On Sunday, the Knesset took the second major step in as many weeks to rein in the power that hard-line rabbis exert over the general population.

The government’s legislative committee threw its weight behind a bill to make conversion much more accessible. It will do so by decentralising conversion and empowering local, state rabbis to oversee the process.

The bottom line that the more lenient rabbis within the state system will be able to offer a gentler and more relaxed conversion track than that which is currently available. The bill would also remove some of the bureaucratic hurdles that currently face conversion candidates.

The bill is expected to sail through the Knesset now that it has the backing of the government.

Couples can now marry with any rabbinate in the country

In the statute books, it would join the law approved last week that ensures equal rights for converts — something they have not always enjoyed in the religious arena.

All Jewish marriage in Israel is solemnised through state-employed rabbis. Some strict rabbis within the state system have rejected marriage applications from converts, claiming that Israel’s conversion processes are too lax. They have also given some Jewish-born couples a hard time, requiring that they provide extensive genealogical research to prove their claim.

To date, couples have been legally required to go to their local marriage registrar, even if he was one of the hardliners. But following the marriage reform law, they can choose any rabbinate in the country. In short, it creates competition between marriage registrars, and will inevitably cause couples to flock to the less strict rabbis.

These reforms tell an important story about a change in Israel’s political constellation. After January’s general election, the strictly-Orthodox parties were frozen out of the government. They always feared that their exclusion would lead to liberalisation, and this is indeed happening.

There are more reforms afoot that would not have gained traction a year or two ago. For example, Sunday also saw the government’s legislative committee given support to a bill that will end the requirement that adopted children are the same religion as their adopted parents. This would end the need for Jewish parents hoping to adopt non-Jewish children to become Orthodox so that rabbis will approve the minors’ conversion.

Meanwhile, the Knesset voted on Tuesday to raise the legal marriage age from 17 to 18, in a move that also angered Charedi MKs, in whose communities marriage at 17 is very common.

Even that most mundane matter of when the clocks should change to winter time was affected by the absence of Charedim from the government. In the past, it was guided by a consideration of the Jewish calendar — it changed ahead of Yom Kippur so the fast ended earlier in the day — but, this year, the Knesset rejected this schedule and set the time-change for late October.

It is true that there are strong conservative forces in the current government, as highlighted by the fury of the religious-Zionist Jewish Home party over last week’s release of Palestinian prisoners. But on domestic issues, there is a strong dose of liberalism.

How strong? This will become clear in the next few weeks and months: will either of the two new bills to introduce “civil partnerships” triumph and will Charedim really be drafted to national service? These will be the real litmus tests of the Knesset’s liberalism.

Last updated: 11:13am, November 7 2013