U.S. visit convinces Knesset whip to vote for pluralism

NEW YORK — A key Likud legislator is ready to risk losing his Knesset seat in the name of Jewish unity.

Ze'ev Boim says he will vote against conversion legislation even if he cannot convince his Likud colleagues to oppose the measure that has become a central source of friction between Israel and a majority of American Jews.

But he intends to use all his persuasive skills to get Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Knesset faction to drop their support of the controversial bill, which would codify Orthodox control over conversions performed in Israel.

The sudden reversal by the Likud Party whip came after a weeklong whirlwind visit to American Jewish communities sponsored by the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations.

Boim was joined by three other coalition Knesset members from the Yisrael Ba'Aliyah and Tsomet parties as well as four legislators from the opposition Labor Party.

The eight Knesset members, three of whom had voted for the legislation in a preliminary vote, jointly pledged at the conclusion of their trip last Friday to lobby their colleagues to stop the bill.

"Passing the law would cause a serious split in the Jewish world," they said in a statement. "Action should be taken to prevent the legislative process and instead find a just and fair compromise that the Jewish world would accept."

They said they plan to meet with Netanyahu soon to convey their findings about the American Jewish community.

The visit came amid a deepening crisis between American Jews and Israel over the issue of religious pluralism in the Jewish state.

American Jews, most of whom are not Orthodox, have voiced outrage over the conversion bill as well as assaults on non-Orthodox men and women praying together near the Western Wall on Tisha B'Av and Shavuot.

The issue has heightened concerns amid a backlash against the annual fund-raising campaign run by local federations in concert with UJA.

While contributions to the annual campaign are up this year, the campaign has fallen behind its projected goal because of "the divisive issues that have confronted us over the past months relating to the treatment of Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel," Richard Wexler, national chairman of UJA, said in a telephone interview.

The 1997 campaign is expected to finish at about $730 million, which would be $20 million less than had been projected for the year, said Bernie Moscovitz, UJA executive vice president.

But, he added, the campaign will still result in a 2 percent increase — some $15 million to $16 million — over last year.

In an effort to educate Israeli lawmakers, in whose hands legislation relating to religious pluralism may rest, UJA and CJF decided to sponsor a tour of Jewish communities around the country.

"I've never seen the people I represent so sad and demoralized," Martin Kraar, CJF executive vice president, told the Knesset members last Friday at a meeting at UJA recapping their visit. "We invited you to see it for yourself."

What the Israeli lawmakers saw and heard in meetings with Jewish communities in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Washington, Baltimore and Richmond, Va., proved to be an education not only on American Jewish attitudes toward pluralism but also on the vibrancy of Jewish life in the United States.

"We got such a strong impression of an enormous effort you are putting in Jewish education, in Hebrew and in bringing your youth to Israel," said Yuri Stern of Yisrael Ba'Aliyah.

"It made us committed to help you" on religious pluralism issues, said Stern.

Boim recounted with passion his visit to a Jewish day school in Chicago, where he was surprised at the sight of students discussing the Bible in Hebrew.

Prior to his election to the Knesset last year, Boim had ties to several American Jewish communities as the mayor of Kiryat Gat.

Despite that experience, Boim said last week's visit gave him a "better understanding of the Jewish community in the United States."

The Knesset members admitted that Israelis are generally unaware of American Jewish life and concerns.

Stern said he had not previously considered the conversion legislation's impact on U.S. Jews because it would not change the status quo of recognizing non-Orthodox conversions performed outside Israel.

Conservative and Reform leaders have maintained that the conversion bill's passage would delegitimize their movements in Israel.

"We did not take into account those feelings when discussing the law," Stern said.

After touring U.S. communities, he said he realized that "it's so painful that we should do our best to avoid it."

Although Kiryat Gat has a large Orthodox constituency, Boim said he would cast his vote on the conversion bill "according to my Jewish conscience, not according to daily politics."

The Orthodox parties made conversion legislation a condition for joining the Netanyahu government last year and the coalition backed the measure on a preliminary vote in April. After that vote, Netanyahu appointed a committee comprising Orthodox, Conservative and Reform representatives to find a solution to the crisis.

But the committee missed its Aug. 15 deadline, and despite confidence exuded by its chairman, Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman, that a solution would be found, it remains doubtful whether the disparate interests of the three religious streams can be satisfied before the Knesset reconvenes in November.

"I am not sure we can find a compromise," Labor Knesset member Ophir Pines-Paz said at last Friday's meeting.

The Orthodox parties have threatened to bolt from the coalition if the legislation is not brought to a vote and adopted. If they carry out their threat, it could force new parliamentary elections.

"This question is so important that it is worth even to lose a chair in the Knesset," Boim said in an interview, explaining that he could lose his seat if new elections were called.