Analysis: Conversion bill threatens the coalition

By Anshel Pfeffer, July 15, 2010

Across the diaspora, Jews may be preoccupied with issues of conversion. But in Israel, the plight of over 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not recognised as Jews by the Orthodox rabbinate and cannot marry locally has attracted very little attention. Nor has there been much of an outcry against the increasing hold of the Charedi non-Zionist rabbis on the state conversion courts, where they impose their super-stringent demands on every prospective convert.

Israelis are simply too busy dealing with security and diplomatic issues; most of them, anyway, never need to deal with conversion.

But all this may be about to change. Yisrael Beiteinu, headed by Avigdor Lieberman, promised to take on the conversion issue on behalf of its Russian voters. This week, MK Dudu Rotem brought a new conversion bill to vote in the Knesset Law Committee.

His solution is to greatly increase the number of rabbis who can perform conversions, giving the power to each town's chief rabbi instead of limiting it to rabbinical courts. The hope is that some of them will be more convert-friendly. The new law would also deny everyone but the Chief Rabbi the right to revoke conversions - once almost unheard of but increasingly common.

So far so good. But the law also stipulates that only rabbis sanctioned by the Chief Rabbinate will be able to perform conversions, basically denying the right to Reform and Conservative rabbis. This clause eventually enabled the strictly Orthodox parties to support the bill, in the hope that their influence in the rabbinate would prevent "liberal" practices taking hold.

But it has infuriated the local non-Orthodox communities and, more importantly, their influential backers in the US, prompting an outcry from the opposition and media. The difference this time is the vulnerability of Mr Netanyahu's coalition. Avigdor Lieberman feels that he is being pushed out of the loop on diplomatic and security affairs and needs a new cause with which to pressure the PM.

Mr Rotem managed to get his proposal passed in committee by one vote, but Mr Netanyahu is now trying to postpone the ratifying vote in the Knesset plenum. His problem is that while he does not want to anger American Jewry, upon whom he relies for support in Washington, his support for Yisrael Beiteinu's conversion bill was a condition in the coalition agreement.

With relations between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Lieberman currently rocky, the conversion bill could balloon into a fully-fledged coalition crisis.

Last updated: 12:50pm, July 15 2010