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Bill on Jewish conversions roils Israel

Associated Press / July 19, 2010

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JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel announced yesterday that he would oppose a bill that has rekindled the age-old debate over who is a Jew and has provoked an angry response among liberal Jewish groups abroad whose support is critical to Israel.

Last week, an Israeli parliamentary committee gave preliminary approval to draft legislation that would give Orthodox rabbis in Israel more control over conversions. The more liberal Reform and Conservative movements that represent the vast majority of Jews outside Israel contend the new legislation would be a dangerous blow to religious pluralism.

Netanyahu told his Cabinet yesterday that he feared the bill would create a rift in the Jewish world and that if he couldn’t find a compromise solution, he would ask his coalition partners to vote against it. The bill would have to pass three votes in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, to become law.

Under the current practice, Israel only partially recognizes conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis inside Israel, while those converted by non-Orthodox rabbis outside the country are automatically eligible for Israeli citizenship like other Jews. The proposed legislation would give Israel’s chief rabbinate the legal authority over all matters of conversion in Israel.

The group most likely to suffer from the change would be immigrants who converted to Judaism abroad and could now be denied Israeli citizenship.

The bill touches a nerve in the Reform and Conservative movements. Their presence is marginal in Israel, where Orthodox rabbis have a near monopoly over religious practice.

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