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Israel News

Fake News About A Fake Law

This week, there was an uproar in Israel over a new bill that would ostensibly prohibit kiruv activities. The same proposal has been around since the 22nd Knesset and has never received much attention. In fact, it is actually an exact replica of a law that was proposed 25 years ago, and that was countered at the time by Aryeh Deri and his colleagues with a bill that would ban influencing a child to become irreligious. Like hundreds of other bills submitted to the Knesset, the latest proposal was meaningless and irrelevant, and should be seen as no more than a bid to make a statement.

This week, I came across a headline that practically screamed with outrage: “Proposed Law Would Ban Kiruv for Minors.”

In response to the news of Zandberg’s proposal, MK Shlomo Karai (Likud) proclaimed, “Bennett, the disgrace of this anti-Jewish government is on your head!”

Another headline dramatically warned, “Creating Baalei Teshuvah to Become a Criminal Offense.” Zandberg’s bill, which the media considers an unprecedented assault on kiruv, has garnered the type of publicity this week that any member of the Knesset dreams of receiving. Tamar Zandberg was interviewed in the media over and over, and a protest was staged outside her home. The demonstrators included non-chareidim who wore tefillin. The bill was also criticized by plenty of secular Israelis.

The chareidi press was also drawn into the firestorm of media coverage of this law; the articles ominously noted that the law would call for a prison sentence for anyone who teaches Yiddishkeit to minors. According to the reports, MK Yisroel Eichler quickly parried with a proposal of his own, calling for a new law that would be the reverse of Zandberg’s bill and would prohibit influencing a minor to abandon Judaism. Naturally, the media sought comments from Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin, the director-general of Chinuch Atzmai and chairman of the Lev L’Achim kiruv organization. If there is any entity in the State of Israel that is specifically targeted by the proposed law, it is Lev L’Achim.

But I have a different take on this incident. What has become clear is that there is a major lack of knowledge about this particular law and about the legislative process in general. The bill may have been discovered by the public today, but it is nothing new. In fact, it was submitted by Tamar Zandberg in three successive terms of the Knesset, but it has never been brought for discussion. Moreover, the same proposal was actually placed on the Knesset table 25 years ago by then-MK Chaim Oron, and it was never debated at the time. The maelstrom that is taking place today is the result of fake news.

Plenty of bills are submitted to the Knesset by lawmakers who are aware that the laws will never see the light of day, even at a preliminary reading. Why would anyone introduce a bill that will never be discussed? There are a couple of reasons. For one thing, the mere act of filing a bill sometimes makes a statement. Shevach Weiss, a former Speaker of the Knesset, once referred to this type of practice as a “declaration by law.” In addition, a bill might sometimes be used against someone or something, or it might serve to impress people who are not familiar with the workings of the Knesset; a legislator might score points with others who monitor their work and are not aware that certain bills will never even be brought to a debate. Moreover, even the act of introducing a bill can generate publicity—as it did for Tamar Zandberg—which is the equivalent of oxygen for a member of the Knesset. Even the members of Agudas Yisroel, Degel HaTorah, and Shas have submitted other bills during the current Knesset that do not stand a chance of being approved. The purpose of these proposals is solely to make a statement.

An Impractical Proposal

First of all, let me quote the text of the bill, which is titled, “Proposal for the Penal Code: Prohibition to Influence Minors to Become Baalei Teshuvah.” The bill consists of a single paragraph: “Anyone who influences a minor to become a baal teshuvah or who performs any other act, whether directly or indirectly, that can lead to the minor becoming a baal teshuvah, without the presence or consent of his parents, in a manner that infringes on the parents’ authority as described in paragraphs 14 and 15 of the Legal Competency and Guardianship Law of 1962, will be sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. Regarding this paragraph, influencing a person to become a baal teshuvah shall be defined as causing a secular person to become religious.”

Every bill in the Knesset is accompanied by an explanatory memo. The text accompanying Zandberg’s bill states: “In light of the many incidents in which various religious entities in Israel have influenced minors to become religious, through various methods including public activities and the distribution of materials that include intimidation in schools, it is proposed that the penal code will include a ban on any activities, whether direct or indirect, on behalf of such institutions for the purpose of influencing minors to become religious. From a practical standpoint, influencing a minor to become a baal teshuvah is similar to influencing someone to change their religion, which is prohibited by paragraph 368b of the penal code. This proposal would relate to influencing a minor, whose views and beliefs are generally less solidified than those of an adult, to change his beliefs and become religious. That is a decision that a person should evaluate for himself, without being subjected to any external pressure or enticement.”

As it is written, this law would be impossible to implement and utterly unrealistic. The law’s original intent was to prevent Judaism from being taught in secular schools, but the Ministry of Education issued regulations prohibiting such activities in any event. The law actually would not prohibit offering chilonim a chance to wear tefillin, which would not be considered “influencing” them, nor would it prohibit the operation of a Garin Torani or a midrashah of Lev L’Achim. It specifically targets kiruv directed at minors without their parents’ knowledge; however, most kiruv activities take place with the parents’ knowledge, consent, and often encouragement. When the law was initially formulated, there was much discussion in the media about Jewish activities in schools; that is what the bill was intended to prevent, and it became superfluous when the Ministry of Education banned those activities. In effect, the law is utterly irrelevant and meaningless, as far as the religious community is concerned.

Tracing the Bill to Its Origin

Zandberg’s law was placed on the Knesset table two weeks ago, on May 18, 2021. For some reason, someone decided just two days ago to turn it into a major issue. However, it is one of 1,413 bills that have been filed in the 24th Knesset to date. The most recent bill, introduced by MK Ofer Kassif, deals with planning and building. Zandberg’s bill is number 1043.

The overwhelming majority of the bills that are filed in the Knesset will never even reach a preliminary reading. And I am prepared to guarantee that Zandberg’s bill is one of the many that will never be brought to a vote, since it will not receive the approval of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. Even if it is indeed brought to the Knesset for discussion, it will very quickly be removed from the agenda. I would even wager that Zandberg herself will not even bother submitting the bill to the ministerial committee, just as she has filed it but taken no further action in previous terms of the Knesset as well. That is, unless the publicity she received this week somehow prompts her to push the bill further through the process.

You may recall that I have written in the past about the bizarre practices surrounding the laws placed on the Knesset table. At the beginning of every new Knesset, every lawmaker gathers all the bills that he or she developed in previous incarnations of the parliament and resubmits them immediately. Knesset members are even allowed to copy bills, and plenty of laws are introduced by various lawmakers in their own names, despite the fact that they were written by others. This often happens with laws that were actually worthwhile and that were originally submitted by members of the Knesset who were not reelected, but sometimes a Knesset member will submit a law previously introduced by a colleague who has held onto his seat. Thus, some bills are filed both by the original lawmaker and by another member of the Knesset who copied them. This tends to happen in particular with laws that are creative and have some actual value.

It is very easy to trace the development of a bill that was copied, a practice that has grown to be accepted, albeit dishonorable. The explanatory text accompanying each law must specify the source of the idea, whether it was a particular lobby (such as Tzohar, Torah Va’Avodah, or AIPAC) or another member of the Knesset. The explanatory text to Zandberg’s bill notes that an identical proposal was filed in the 23rd Knesset. The text accompanying that bill explains in turn that it is a copy of a similar proposal that was presented in the 22nd Knesset. In other words, the law has been repeatedly transferred from one Knesset to the next without attracting any attention.

If Tamar Zandberg had been even more precise in her acknowledgments, she would have noted that the bill was also proposed by another member of the Meretz party in the 18th Knesset. Actually, Zandberg did mention this in her initial version of the bill, in the 22nd Knesset, although she hasn’t repeated the attribution in the later versions. In short, she hasn’t come up with anything new.

The law was originally authored by MK Chaim Oron in the 18th Knesset and was cosigned by MKs Gilaon and Horowitz. This week, in the wake of the outrage sparked by the bill, Tamar Zandberg announced apologetically that the initial idea wasn’t her own and that it had come from Chaim Oron. As I mentioned, this acknowledgment was absent in the more recent iterations of the bill, when she seemed to take full credit for it. Perhaps that is the standard procedure in the Knesset.

Precedents in the 14th Knesset

In reality, Tamar Zandberg might be surprised to learn that the same bill was introduced by Chaim Oron even earlier, as far back as the 14th Knesset, when it was placed on the Knesset table on January 6, 1997. The text of the bill at the time was fairly similar to its current form: “Anyone who acts, directly or indirectly, to influence a minor to become a baal teshuvah, on behalf of an organization whose goals include encouraging teshuvah, will be sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. Regarding this clause, influencing a person to become a baal teshuvah shall be defined as causing a secular person to become religious.” In the explanatory text, Oron noted, “In light of the numerous cases in which religious groups in Israel have influenced minors to become baalei teshuvah, through means including public activities and the distribution of materials in schools that include intimidation, it is proposed to add a clause to the Penal Code prohibiting direct or indirect activities on behalf of those bodies, with the goal of influencing minors to become religious.”

Just two months later, a similar proposal was filed by MK Ophir Pines-Paz, who acknowledged in the explanatory text that his idea came on the heels of similar bills. In all likelihood, he was referring to two other proposed laws: Oron’s proposal and another bill that had been filed by the Shas party. He emphasized that his bill combined both proposals into a single package, which would constitute a ban on influencing a minor to become religious or to leave Jewish observance. This bill was placed on the Knesset table on 17 Adar Rishon 5757/February 24, 1997.

This brings us to another interesting detail of the story: One month after Chaim Oron introduced his proposal, it was countered with a law that would prohibit influencing a minor to become irreligious. The latter bill was introduced on February 3, 1997, by the members of the Shas party in the Knesset: Dovid Azulai, Nissim Dahan, Yitzchak Vaknin, Dovid Tal, Yitzchak Cohen, Refael Pinchasi, and, of course, Aryeh Deri. The Shas party had ten representatives in the 14th Knesset, but three of them (Eli Yishai, Shlomo Benizri, and Rabbi Aryeh Gamliel) held ministerial posts and were therefore barred from signing a proposed law. In any event, this should make it clear that Yisroel Eichler’s bill, which was submitted in response to Zandberg’s proposed law, was no more original than her proposal. Zandberg drew her idea from an initiative of Chaim Oron, while Eichler’s response was a repeat of an initiative of the Shas party from 25 years ago.

The Shas bill read, “In paragraph 368 of the Penal Code of 1977, after subparagraph b, the following shall be added as subparagraph c: ‘In this regard, [influencing someone with respect to] changing their religion will include influencing a person to give up belief in the fundamental tenets of Jewish faith.’” The explanatory text states, “In light of the numerous cases in which various entities in Israel have convinced minors to leave their religion or to renounce their belief in the tenets of [Jewish] faith, through means including public activities or the distribution of materials in schools, including intimidation, it is proposed that the penal code should prohibit any direct or indirect activities on behalf of these institutions for the purpose of influencing minors to leave their religion or to give up their beliefs.” The text virtually mimics the memorandum accompanying Oron’s bill.

In the case of the recent uproar over Zandberg’s proposal, which included demonstrations held outside her home, it isn’t clear who was responsible for bringing the media’s attention to the bill or what their motivation was. The bill was so trivial and irrelevant that the publicity can do nothing but benefit it. In fact, there are many bills filed in the 24th Knesset alone that are far worse.

Lev L’achim Will Continue Its Work

As marginal and meaningless as the bill may be, once it was publicized it was important for the chareidi community to respond. “Even if it doesn’t have a chance of becoming an actual law, we couldn’t let it go without responding,” Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin told me. “At the very least, we have an obligation to protest. Besides,” he added, “the Meretz party has been in the opposition until now, and their proposals had no weight at all. Now that they are part of the coalition and the government, their bills carry a bit more weight.”

Regarding my observation that the bill would not have any effect on kiruv activists, Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin said, “The contents of the law attest to its author’s complete detachment from reality. Lev L’Achim’s activists throughout the country can attest to the fact that the younger generation is thirsting to learn Torah and to absorb the word of Hashem. They come to our midrashot and complain to us that their schools have hidden their connection to the Torah from them. This impels them to search for meaning and for the Jewish identity that they are so sorely lacking. The young people have told us that their parents are generally pleased with their involvement with us and welcome their participation in our programs.

“Beyond that, it is inconceivable for the Jewish state to ban the study of Judaism,” Rav Sorotzkin, who leads the largest kiruv organization in the world, added indignantly. “Teaching Judaism to Israeli youth should be one of the basic functions of this state. We, in Lev L’Achim, are essentially doing their work for them. We cannot accept the fact that millions of youths have been robbed of their basic right to knowledge of Judaism. This is a law that violates the law; it is an outrageous denial of the simple truth and of the basis of our existence as a nation in Eretz Yisroel. B’ezras Hashem, with the guidance of our rabbonim, we will work to continue disseminating Torah and Judaism, and we will determine how to thwart any dangerous proposal of this nature.”

Rav Sorotzkin took the opportunity to add a postscript to our discussion. “During the hostilities that recently ended, I traveled with Rav Avrohom Zaivald to visit the midrashot in the south during the days that the area was bombarded with missiles. I told the young men who were participating in our programs that they are models of mesirus nefesh for Torah learning. The kiruv activists of Lev L’Achim are working with enormous dedication to see to it that the Torah will never be forgotten. We will follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Akiva, who would gather large crowds of people to learn Torah in public, undaunted by the government’s decrees.”