Netanyahu draws and deflects non-Orthodox anger

Organizers from the Religious Action Center said the move would be seen as a "deliberate affront and a failure to recognize the anguish" caused by the looming conversion bill.

Adding insult to injury, Netanyahu then quipped at a nationally televised news conference, "It is probably easier to make peace with the Palestinians than to resolve this satisfactorily" between the Jews.

But his tenor shifted in a private meeting Monday night in Washington with leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements and the fund-raising establishment.

Some participants said Netanyahu appeared eager to find ways to narrow the growing rift between Israeli and diaspora Jewry spurred by the legislation.

The bill would give the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate exclusive control over conversions performed in Israel, in effect barring the recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions performed there.

The Knesset passed the measure last week in the first of three votes known as readings.

Netanyahu played down the legislation, saying it only "formalizes something which has been informal" throughout Israel's history.

But after the liberal movement leaders blasted such "dismissive rhetoric" as "unacceptable," they said the premier showed a new understanding of the impact of the law on American Jews and made a commitment to search for "creative solutions."

Most important, they said, he asked two key advisers to stay in the United States to begin crafting compromises with leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements.

But some of the participants made it clear that they will remain guarded until they see results.

"It is fair to say we remain skeptical," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Such a compromise would be only one piece of a large and complex puzzle. Any deal would require the approval of the Orthodox parties in Netanyahu's ruling coalition, which have made the passage of the legislation a condition of remaining in the government.

It also would require consultations with the Reform and Conservative movement leadership in Israel.

Meanwhile, anger reached a high pitch at Reform and Conservative meetings over the weekend.

Leaders from the 1,400-strong Conservative Rabbinical Assembly left their annual convention in Boston to meet with Netanyahu. Despite their reports Tuesday that headway was made in Washington, a demonstration of more than 150 rabbis was planned in front of Boston's Israeli Consulate.

"We are outraged at the latest attempt to once again deny full religious rights to our segment of world Jewry, an act that denies the pluralistic nature of Judaism and betrays the inclusive vision of Zionism," said a statement given to the consulate.

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, attended the Netanyahu meeting and said such anger was conveyed to him.

Meyers has been named one of the members of the team enlisted by Netanyahu to explore possible compromises.

"This is a difficult and delicate moment and we've all agreed to try very hard to find creative solutions," said Meyers.

The Knesset action last week prompted the Conservative and Reform movements to issue an unusually strong joint statement urging 1,800 congregations across North America to boycott Knesset members who support the bill in its final vote.

"We ask our synagogues to refrain from extending invitations to them to appear as speakers or lecturers, or as guests of honor in our institutions," the statement said.

"Furthermore, we ask our congregational leaders to refrain from supporting any communal activity to which such Knesset members have been invited."

The statement also urged members "to encourage their federations to provide increased support to Conservative and Reform programs in Israel."

It urged the Jewish Agency for Israel, the primary Israeli recipient of United Jewish Appeal and federation funds, to shift more money to such programs. The agency gives about $1 million annually to each of the three major movements.

Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg blasted the conversion legislation at the Reform meeting in Washington and the Boston meeting of Conservative Jews.

"The law is a danger to the future of the unity of the Jewish people," he said.

Philip Meltzer, the president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, challenged the federation world to "redress the imbalance" of funds to the three movements.

"Obscene amounts of funding are funneled through the government of Israel to Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox institutions, while virtually no funding is received from the government for Reform and Conservative institutions," he said.

The U.S. fund-raising establishment has also protested last week's Knesset vote and has implied that it will consider increasing allocations to the religious streams in Israel.

Reform and Conservative conversions have been performed in Israel for years but without legal sanction. The Knesset initiative responded to a 1995 Supreme Court ruling that no law existed to justify the status quo.

Orthodox Jewry is largely united behind the legislation. But liberal Jewish leaders warn Israeli officials that they view the legislation as a slap at their legitimacy that could affect fund-raising.

Netanyahu has said Israeli politics give him little choice, and pledged to protect the "status quo" that still considers Reform and Conservative conversions abroad to be legal. The pending legislation would not affect such conversions.

Netanyahu told Jewish journalists in Israel that the imbroglio was spurred by a "misrepresentation" of the facts by leaders of the liberal Jewish movements in Israel.

In Washington, he again blamed these movements in Israel for sparking the debate by taking their case to the Supreme Court.