Foes of conversion bill parting ways over compromise

But the Conservative movement, which expressed surprise at the Reform proposal, maintained that the pressure of continued litigation was the only way to force the religious parties to the negotiating table.

The bill, which would cement in law exclusive Orthodox authority over conversions performed in Israel, is expected to be brought before the Knesset for final action by the end of this month if no compromise is reached.

The religious parties have threatened to bring down the Netanyahu government by bolting his Likud-led coalition if the bill does not become law.

Members of the non-Orthodox streams in Israel and in the United States have protested that the legislation would not only delegitimize Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel, but would also negate their practice of Judaism.

Indeed, champions of pluralism this week delivered 5,000 petitions signed by North American Jews to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling on him to reject the legislation.

"Even though such a law would be limited to conversions performed in Israel, it declares that in the eyes of the state of Israel, the beliefs and practices of the vast majority of the world's Jews are not authentically Jewish," the petition said.

The petition, spearheaded by the New Israel Fund, was presented as the Knesset Law Committee was meeting Wednesday of last week to prepare the legislation for further action.

The Knesset passed the controversial measure April 1 in the first of three votes known as readings.

The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel have brought cases over the past few years to Israel's High Court of Justice to secure recognition for their conversions.

Indeed, Netanyahu has blamed these initiatives for sparking Orthodox anger and a call for conversion legislation. The movements have rejected that notion.

The Reform movement's offer to freeze litigation appeared to be an effort to postpone further the second and third readings.

Netanyahu has in recent weeks urged the Reform and Conservative movements to halt their litigation in order to stop the legislation.

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center, said the movement "is willing to consider" four of five compromise measures proposed in an effort to "find a negotiated solution" to the conversion question.

Those four proposals are:

*A suggestion by Rabbi Yisrael Rosenne, head of the Chief Rabbinate's conversion authority, that the registration of national identity, such as Jewish, on Israeli identity cards would remain for converts, while the Interior Ministry would record in its registry the type of conversion. This list would not be accessible to the general public.

*Knesset member Avraham Ravitz, of United Torah Judaism, an Orthodox party, has proposed that identity cards only list the first letter of a person's religion, such as the letter "J" instead of the word "Jewish." Again, the Interior Ministry would record the conversion and its denomination.

*Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement Efrat, has recommended the establishment of a joint religious court related to conversions that would include all religious streams of Judaism.

*A suggestion by Knesset member Yuri Stern, of the Yisrael Ba'Aliyah immigrant-rights party, would eliminate the nationality/religious listing from identity cards.

A fifth proposal, which the Reform movement said it is not prepared to consider, would encode the type of conversion in the second digit of the identity card number, making it possible for others to determine what type of conversion the cardholder had undergone.

Regev said this proposal, introduced by Rosenne within the past few days, was "unacceptable. It would indicate this is a convert, and specify what kind of conversion to the general public."

The Reform movement, which had earlier resisted a freeze on its legal petitions, decided to change its stance because "we have said more than once that we would be willing to negotiate on these and other compromise suggestions," Regev said.

"We are extending our hand to the Orthodox parties and to the coalition in the hopes that we can sit down and find a solution to this problem."

Rabbi Einat Ramon, spokeswoman of the Conservative/Masorti movement, said she was "surprised" by the Reform movement's decision to accept a freeze.

"After all, it's our court case that is putting pressure on the government. It's not up to the Reform movement to postpone our court case. It's really our decision."

The High Court of Justice has given the government until June 30 to explain why it failed to register as Jewish children who were adopted abroad and converted in Israel by the Conservative/Masorti movement.

If the government does not respond, the court is slated to hold a hearing July 9 on the two-year-old Masorti petition. Masorti movement leaders believe that the court will rule in their favor and legalize the conversions.