Israel will rue conversion bill, Reform leader warns

"It's already happening," said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Hirsch came to the Bay Area last week to meet with rabbis, federation leaders, Israel's regional consul general and average Jews. His mission was twofold: to rally the opposition needed to defeat the bill and to press for funds to build more Reform institutions in Israel.

Like other Reform leaders in the movement's top echelon, Hirsch will not mince words on the legislation.

The conversion bill, which passed the first of three required readings in early April, would codify the long-standing practice of giving the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate exclusive control over conversions performed in Israel. Non-Orthodox Jewish groups inside and outside Israel have resoundingly opposed the bill. The second reading has not been scheduled.

"What Israel is attempting to do is to say in effect, `The Jewish state…wants to legislate two categories of Jews: first-class Jews — the Orthodox — and second-class Jews — all the rest of you,'" Hirsch said.

"All the rest" happens to be 90 percent of world Jewry, he said.

Israel is essentially saying "all the rest" are Jewish enough to give money, lobby Capitol Hill or tour Israel, he added. But they are not Jewish enough to create institutions or have religious credibility in Israel.

In his eyes, it's discrimination.

A possible compromise raised hopes briefly last month. Third Way Knesset member Alex Lubotsky proposed listing all converts on their Israeli identity cards as Jewish, but allowing the population registry to specify the type of conversion they had undergone.

That option has fizzled.

Such a compromise wouldn't satisfy the Orthodox political parties anyway, Hirsch said. "What motivated them is an uncompromising position," he said. "It's a worldview. It's what they termed `ideological warfare.'"

Despite his hopes of winning, Hirsch isn't sure of the outcome.

But he will predict the long-term effects if the bill becomes law. He envisions a "dramatic decline" in money heading to Israel, although he calls this issue secondary because the $450 million that goes to Israel via the Jewish Agency accounts for less than 1 percent of Israel's budget.

A more significant result, he asserted, will be a deterioration of American Jewry's drive to lobby Congress on behalf of Israel. The American Jewish establishment, he noted, is made up of only a few thousand people who are overwhelmingly Reform or Conservative Jews.

These Jews, a tangible political asset for Israel, are motivated primarily by a feeling of unity and responsibility for all fellow Jews, he said. Destroy this dynamic, Hirsch added, and the whole lobbying mechanism begins to unravel.

"This is Politics 101."

Israel's $5 billion annual foreign-aid package would wither, as would support for the Mideast peace process.

"All it takes is not — heaven forfend — Jews lobbying against Israel, but simply not trying as hard."

Though the bill hasn't passed yet, Hirsch said he already has seen the "unleashing of negative impulses." Once that has happened, he can't predict what the effect on Israel-diaspora relations will be.

"That's ominous," he said.

He has little sympathy for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"It is ironic that the person who claims to be the prime minister who most understands American Jewry is wreaking the most havoc," Hirsch said. "He should tell the Orthodox parties, `It's not something I'm willing to support'…The price is so high."

Nonetheless, Hirsch has been buoyed by the fact that the bill is still a bill, even though the conversion issue was part of the government coalition agreements crafted last June between the Likud and the Orthodox parties.

To further the opposition's efforts, he wants Jews of every stripe to write Knesset members and speak with any Israeli official they meet. And while Jews have been focusing on Israel-bound federation money as a way to voice their opinions, Kirsch reiterated that the money spent on Israel Bonds, for example, goes directly into Israeli government coffers and to Orthodox institutions.

While fighting the bill, Hirsch is heading down other paths to build a Reform presence in Israel. He is seeking millions of dollars for the building of Reform synagogues, community centers and schools.

He is also raising funds to support weddings, conversions and b'nai mitzvah performed by Reform rabbis in Israel.

Reform Jewry has itself partly to blame for the current situation, he acknowledged. Leaders made a "strategic decision" decades ago to raise money for Israel's military, economy and immigrant absorption.

Though they would probably make the same decision again, Hirsch said they allowed for the creation of a vacuum that has been filled by religious fundamentalists and political extremists.

"We paid a price, in retrospect," he said.