Conversion battle threatens to topple the prime minister

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JERUSALEM — Efforts in Israel to reconcile the three major streams of Judaism appear to have collapsed.

With the Knesset due to reconvene Sunday, Oct. 27, the Orthodox parties threw down the gauntlet early this week. They now intend to push ahead with bills on two issues — conversions and local religious councils — that would codify Orthodox control over religious life in Israel.

If the bills fail, the parties threaten to bolt the governing coalition and bring down the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In that scenario, a unity government joining the Likud and Labor parties would be more likely than ever.

Responding to the Orthodox declaration, the Reform and Conservative movements vowed to return to the courts to seek recognition for their conversions performed in Israel.

The issues of conversion and religious councils have come to a head within the past year in the ongoing battle over religious pluralism in the Jewish state. The conflict has led to a deep and still growing schism betweenIsrael and the predominantly non-Orthodox Jewish community in the United States.

The latest developments come just weeks before the annual meeting of the Council of Jewish Federations, as well as national conventions of the Reform and Conservative movements.

Netanyahu is scheduled to address the CJF's General Assembly in November in Indianapolis. He would likely come under sharp criticism for not blocking the conversion bill and for backing the religious councils legislation.

The Orthodox threat came Tuesday in a hastily arranged meeting with the premier. It materialized after Israel's Chief Rabbinate rejected a possible compromise on the conversion crisis proposed by a committee headed by Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman.

The proposal allowed Reform and Conservative to help prepare converts but let Orthodox rabbis control the final ceremony.

"Under no circumstance is this an acceptable situation," Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron said of the conversion proposal. "Such converts would not be real converts."

While Ne'eman's committee is not formally dead, this week's events seriously imperiled it.

The Reform and Conservative movements, in a joint statement Tuesday, said the Orthodox stance relieved them of an earlier pledge to suspend litigation to gain recognition for non-Orthodox conversions.

"The Chief Rabbinate's position leaves us no alternative but to pursue the legal recourse which we have delayed for five months," said the statement, referring to a compromise reached earlier this year that was the basis for forming Ne'eman's committee.

The compromise also called on the Orthodox parties to suspend their campaign to pass conversion legislation. The conversion bill, which passed a first reading in April, would require two more Knesset vote before it can become law.

In the midst of the uproar, the Prime Minister's Office continued to hold out hope for Ne'eman's committee.

"We still believe there is a way to solve problems by Jews talking to Jews," said Bobby Brown, the premier's adviser on diaspora affairs. "I believe that no political or religious faction wants to create a major rift with the Jewish people."

The Prime Minister's Office announced that Ne'eman's committee would continue its work.

"We are extremely close to coming up with recommendations which we believe would preserve halachah [Jewish law] and create a situation in which no stream of Judaism would find itself disenfranchised," said Brown.

In their statement, the Reform and Conservative movements pledged to keep working with the committee.

On the religious councils issue, which has not yet come before the Knesset, the prime minister appeared Tuesday to give the go-ahead to his Orthodox coalition partners.

At their meeting, Netanyahu and the Orthodox Knesset members agreed that a government committee would convene during Sukkot to draft legislation on religious councils.

The Orthodox parties want the Knesset to pass a law that would bar non-Orthodox representatives from local religious councils. Such an action would supersede a series of High Court of Justice rulings upholding the right of Reform and Conservative Jews to serve on the councils.

The court is expected to rule later this month on the right of Reform and Conservative Jews to sit on religious councils in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Kiryat Tivon.

The councils, supervised by the Religious Affairs Ministry, have exclusive jurisdiction over marriage, kashrut, burial and other religious matters for all Jewish Israelis.

This week's breakdown in resolving the conversion crisis came after Ne'eman presented his committee's preliminary recommendations to the two chief rabbis in a closed meeting.

Under the terms of the proposal, a joint body of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis would select and prepare candidates for conversions. Only Orthodox rabbis would actually perform the conversions.

In addition, the committee was recommending that Reform and Conservative rabbis would be permitted to perform weddings in Israel, provided that two Orthodox rabbis served as witnesses.

A source close to Ne'eman's committee said the finance minister was testing the waters to see whether the chief rabbis would endorse a solution that included roles for Reform and Conservative rabbis.

The two chief rabbis balked.

For a Knesset no-confidence vote to succeed, the Orthodox parties' 23 Knesset members would need the backing of the opposition Labor Party.

Avraham Burg, the Jewish Agency for Israel's chairman, urged Labor Party leader Ehud Barak and other opposition Knesset members to provide a "parliamentary safety net" for the Netanyahu government "that would foil the attempts of the Orthodox parties to bring down the government."