News Analysis: Time for showdown, or compromise, over pluralism

JERUSALEM — Showdown or compromise? Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews in Israel are preparing for both as a committee working to find a solution to the conversion bill crisis closes in on its deadline.

The committee, headed by Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman, is expected to finish its work by Sunday — one week ahead of schedule.

Members said the early completion will be a result of Ne'eman's planned trip to the United States to participate in an Israel Bonds event next week.

Much is at stake as the clock ticks for the committee, which was established last year. The issue already has sparked widespread resentment among American Jews, the overwhelming majority of whom identify with the Reform and Conservative movements' push for recognition in Israel.

For their part, American Orthodox Jews, like their Israeli counterparts, appear divided over the issue, with some opposed to any change in the status quo, which gives Israel's Chief Rabbinate exclusive control over personal status issues such as marriage, conversion and burial.

Others have expressed the hope that the Ne'eman Committee, which includes representatives of the major streams of Judaism, would succeed in reaching a compromise resolution.

But even as a compromise began to take shape, prominent Orthodox Israeli rabbis unleashed a fresh barrage of anti-Reform and Conservative rhetoric.

Reform leaders, meanwhile, said they do not trust the rabbinate to carry out the committee's conclusions and demanded guarantees. Their Orthodox counterparts accused them of trying to torpedo a compromise.

And in the Knesset, Orthodox parties, anticipating the committee's failure, prepared to push through the very bill — one that would enshrine in law the Orthodox monopoly over conversions in Israel — that ignited the controversy in the first place.

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center and a Ne'eman Committee member, said he hoped that enough coalition members would keep the bill from passing if it came to a vote.

If not, he warned, the bill would spark outraged Israelis into a full-scale war against religious coercion.

"This will be fueled in part by growing support from diaspora Jewry, which will translate its frustration into anger," he said, predicting a backlash of political, charitable and even economic support for Israel by American Jews.

Even as both sides are preparing for a renewed battle, the main elements of a compromise are in place, prompting speculation that the tough positions are last-minute bargaining tactics.

Committee members outlined two main components of the compromise package:

*A joint, interdenominational educational conversion program, under the auspices of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which would be established as an accepted choice for potential converts who seek a non-Orthodox alternative.

*The formal conversion process would be conducted by Orthodox religious courts established by the Chief Rabbinate.

But several key elements to the agreemen are still being disputed.

One of the key sticking points, according to several parties involved, is whether the Reform and Conservative will agree, as the Orthodox are demanding, to stop performing their own conversions once a compromise takes effect.

While the Conservative movement appears likely to agree to that demand, the Reform movement has not accepted it.

While many had hoped that a compromise allowing for the official recognition of weddings officiated by non-Orthodox rabbis would be part of the conversion compromise, that is not going to happen, according to Alex Lubotzky, a Knesset member from the centrist Third Way Party who has been a driving force in the campaign for a compromise.

Regev said he accepted the basic formula of the compromise — a joint conversion school coupled with Orthodox conversion.

However since the rabbinate was not represented on the committee — and has refused regular contact with the Reform and Conservative movements — Regev said he wanted a firm commitment from Israel's chief rabbis that they would abide by the decisions.

But Rabbi Simcha Meron, an Orthodox member of the committee, accused Regev of creating an excuse for not signing the conclusions, in an attempt to blame the Orthodox if the committee fails.

"They know that the committee is working with the knowledge of the rabbinate," Meron said.

He said the chief rabbis were likely to meet the committee before it submits its findings to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

However after statements made last week by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, it is difficult to imagine the Chief Rabbinate signing on to the package.

In a meeting with a mission of 75 Orthodox and ultra-religious Orthodox rabbis from the United States who came to lobby for the conversion legislation, Lau said Reform and Conservative rabbis did not deserve recognition.

For his part, Regev believes that such Orthodox efforts could be the key to averting an all-out religious war if the Ne'eman Committee fails.

"There is a quiet dialogue going on between us and some of the younger generation of [Orthodox] rabbis," he said. "Ultimately, they, too, realize the need for a change on policies of religion and state in Israel."