Coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud) on Monday morning presented a compromise solution for the problem caused by last Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling siding with the demands of Reform and Conservative petitioners for equal access to state-run mikvahs-ritual baths. Last February, the Supreme Court ruled that local religious councils must make state-run mikvahs available for conversion ceremonies run by Israeli Reform and Conservative clergy.
Last week, the Knesset Interior Committee debated a bill proposed by Shas and UTJ, the two ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, determining that the use of public mikvahs in Israel will be conducted strictly according to halakha and under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate.
Finance Committee Chairman MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) for his part on Friday announced that he plans to submit the bill in order to prevent the implementation of the court’s ruling. This would be in keeping with the coalition agreement between UTJ and Likud, which says that each time the Supreme Court issues a ruling that jeopardizes issues close to the heart of the Orthodox-Jewish party, the government must submit a bill to bypass the court.
Gafni, who argued that the court’s new ruling violates the national status quo on issues of religion and state, also cited the coalition’s obligation to maintain the same status quo.
Judge Elyakim Rubinstein, an Orthodox Jew who was part of the unanimous decision in favor of the Reform and Conservative petitioners, suggested in his ruling that the religious council in question, in Be’er Sheva, illegally segregated against Israeli citizens. “From the moment the state has constructed public mikvahs and made them available to the public — including for use in conversions — it cannot practice inequality in their usage,” Elyakim wrote. Rubinstein added that “the state’s decision not to supervise dipping in the mikvah that is conducted as part of a private conversion does not justify preventing it.”
One of the other two judges on the panel was Salim Joubran, a Christian Arab. Chief Justice Miriam Naor was the third judge. It should be noted that while last week Ha’aretz complained about a decision by Judge Rubinstein favoring the Chief Rabbinate, implying he should have recused himself from deciding Orthodox Jewish issues because he wears a yarmulke (sic), the same paper did not make a similar complaint in this case.
The MK Bitan compromise will suspend the application of the Mikvah law for nine months, during which time two to four mikvahs would be built for the Reform and Conservative public. The Jewish Agency is expected to bear the costs of construction. Meanwhile, the coalition would work on a softer version of the Shas-UTJ bill, which would skirt the Supreme Court ruling but not actually bypass it. The first draft was scheduled to be presented to the Interior committee Monday morning.
According to MK Bitan, “We are not planning to pass a Supreme Court bypassing law, but instead to find solutions to the problems raised by the court’s ruling. According to the understanding, we will build between two to four mikvahs in various locations in the country for the Reform and Conservative public so they can dip there according to their method.” Bitan stressed that “we must maintain equality for everyone in spending resources.”
A Haredi party source that spoke to JNi.media on the condition of anonymity said the Bitan compromise will most likely be accepted since it does not actually compel religious councils to share existing mikvahs with the Reform and Conservative, but allocates to them new mikvahs. Nevertheless, the Haredi coalition parties are likely going to be subjected to attacks from the Haredi media, which see the very idea of allowing the two non-Orthodox movement a foot in the door as ushering disaster. Some in the Haredi media, such as Ha’peles, would like to see the Haredi parties using their critical role in Netanyahu’s small coalition to extract deeper concessions regarding the non-Orthodox mikvahs.