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Rotem on criticism over conversion bill: ‘I never promised anything’

By Jacob Berkman, JTA

July 13, 2010 | 11:21 am

The Israeli politician who crafted a controversial bill that would consolidate control over conversion in the office of the Chief Rabbinate has said that he never promised to hold off on pushing it through – and that whether it passes is of no concern to American Jews.

Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem today responded to critics who say he surreptitiously is trying to push through a bill that would empower local rabbis in Israel to officiate over conversions to Israel, but that would give power to the Orthodox-dominated Rabbinate to appoint a committee that would verify that all conversions are done according to halachah, or traditional Jewish law.

Critics of the bill – particularly those from the non-Orthodox religious streams, the Jewish federation system and the Jewish Agency for Israel – have been fighting it since Rotem first proposed it in May, believing that it would be dagger in the heart of pluralistic Judaism in Israel and that it could cut a chasm between Israeli Judaism and Diaspora Judaism.

The bill’s detractors – led by the Jewish Agency’s chairman Natan Sharansky—believed that they had gotten Rotem to hold off on the bill pending more discussion after he and several other high-up Israeli politicians came to the U.S. in May on a speaking and discussion tour, and after a number of meetings between Sharansky and Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Several top-level Israeli politicians, including its justice minister and minister for Diaspora affairs, had agreed to work with Sharansky on altering the bill, and those close to the situation believed that they had bought some time.

But Monday morning, Rotem brought the bill to the Knesset’s Law Committee, which approved the bill in a 5-4 vote. It now must go through three readings in the Knesset before it becomes law. That Rotem pushed the bill through the committee was a shock to almost all involved; many, including Sharansky, only found out on Sunday that he would do so.

The move set off a maelstrom of criticism from Jewish leaders, but Rotem – who told The Fundermentalist that “this bill will pass, no doubt”—was unapologetic about not waiting for further discussion.

“I never promised anything,” Rotem told The Fundermentalist Monday afternoon. “I told all the time that 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.”

American leaders in particular have been concerned that the bill would affect the Law of Return, which grants entrance to Israel for anyone who is Jewish or has at least one Jewish grandparent, as well as automatic citizenship. Of particular concern was 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, however, removed that one item before pushing the bill through the law committee today. 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 told The Fundermentalist. “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. I think it is a big mistake. It is being used for political reasons because this law has got nothing to do with American Judaism or anyone in the Diaspora.”

“If it has anything to do with Diaspora Jews, they should have a say,” he added. “Israel has got its own problems and the law of Diaspora Jew cannot be connected to Knesset. Either you love Israel or you don’t love Israel.”

Rotem, a former official with Isreal’s National Religious party, has disputed the notion that this law would have an affect on pluralism in Israel, saying that it would help thousands of Israelis who are not Jewish according to halachah become Jewish, as it would make conversions more accessible. He said it is not his intent to drive a wedge between Israeli and Diaspora Judaism. That is why he removed the item about refugees.

“I don’t want to make a separation between Jews in Israel and Jews in the United States,” he said. “When they explained to me this is worrying them, for reasons I could put into my mind, I saw they were right,” and removed that item.

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