Israel Approves Bill Easing Conversion to Judaism for Hundreds of Thousands of Israelis

11/03/2014 22:13

The Israeli cabinet approved a new bill on Sunday aimed at easing the process of converting to Judaism, which advocates say could encourage hundreds of thousands of Israelis to join the religion.

"It is a very good day for Israel," Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, chair of the Jewish Home party, told The Times of Israel on Sunday. "It will solve many problems for thousands of Israelis."

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, added: "This is a day of good news: After struggles and obstacles, the reform in conversion passed in the government today with a large majority.

"The message to hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens, whom we encouraged to make aliya under the Law of Return is that, as of today, you are no longer second-class citizens, you are part of us, part of the Jewish people," Livni continued.

AFP reported that the new law allows the chief rabbi of each city in Israel to form and head a conversion court, which could greatly increase the number of conversion courts from the four current ones recognized by state Orthodox bodies.

Judaism remains the majority religion in Israel, but it's hoping to welcome close to 364,000 Israeli citizens who immigrated from the former Soviet Union. Despite being defined as "religionless" under Jewish law, most of them have lineage of Judaism.

Elazar Stern of Livni's HaTnuah movement noted that the law will help many conversion candidates, "especially those who had already given up on conversion." He promised to act swiftly and help form new courts for those candidates.

Activists praised the decision, with Natan Sharansky, chairman of Israel's Jewish Agency, calling it "crucial to the successful absorption and integration of many immigrant Israelis."

"There is no doubt that this is a welcome development to all who wish to draw in those who are distant and embrace those who have come near," he said in a statement.

The bill is expected to pass into law with overwhelming support from both coalition and opposition lawmakers during Wednesday's final vote, Times of Israel added.

The chief rabbinate has so far not accepted the new law, however, and will have to discuss a course of action later.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and his Sephardi counterpart Yitzhak Yosef told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the original version of the bill could harm converts, because a number of rabbis could refuse to recognize the State Rabbinate's conversions.

"There is no government service where citizens decide where they can get that service," complained MK Moshe Gafni of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party. "You don't get to choose the judge in your court case."

Gafni added that conversions "require expertise."

"Judaism isn't a missionizing religion. They make it difficult to join the Jewish people," he said. CP

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