By Michele Chabin
Religion News Service
JERUSALEM (RNS) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet Sunday (July 18) that he opposes a proposed bill to give Orthodox rabbis control over conversions because it could alienate Jews in North America.
"The bill could tear apart the Jewish people," Netanyahu said at his government's weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. "We will make the effort to stop the bill from reaching the Knesset," Israel's parliament.
If the bill is not shelved, Netanyahu said, he would ask members of his own Likud party, as well as other political parties, to vote against it.
Though the bill, if passed, should streamline the conversion process, it would also codify absolute power to Orthodox rabbis on conversion matters.
Controversy over the bill is threatening the stability of Netanyahu's coalition government. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the Yisrael Beiteinu party that is proposing the bill, threatened Sunday to bolt from the coalition. Doing so could bring down the government and force new elections.
Lieberman softened his tone Monday, insisting there was no crisis with Netanyahu.
Underscoring the political nature of religious issues in Israel, one of Israel's chief rabbis last week appeared to urge the Knesset's religious political parties to quit the government.
"If they heeded my advice," Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar said, "they would all stand together with one voice and one heart and say `It's the Conversion Law or we're leaving,"' he said on Kol Barama radio.
"The Reform Jews are using the political situation to blackmail the prime minister. They sit there and they want to dictate our lives," Amar said.
Netanyahu has been under intense pressure from American Jews to prevent the bill's passage, including Reform and Conservative leaders and the Jewish Federation of North America, which supports numerous Israeli public programs.
The spokeswoman of Israel's Conservative movement told The Jerusalem Post that Netanyahu's office had received 50,000 e-mails protesting the bill in recent days.
American Jews even enlisted the help of several U.S. senators, who conveyed their concerns in a letter to Israel's ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren.
Uri Regev, president of the Israeli religious freedom group Hiddush, called the amount of feedback from Diaspora Jews unprecedented, and predicted the bill might be postponed indefinitely.
Still, Regev said, if Netanyahu needs to choose between safeguarding his government or responding to American Jews, "I wouldn't bet on the bill not being passed."
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