After the Neeman Commission: Where do we go now Here

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Seven tumultuous months after it was formed to propose a solution to the conversion controversy in Israel, the Ne'eman Commission has concluded its discussions. Submitting an unsigned report while leaving many critical issues unresolved, the commission, which began in an atmosphere of crisis and hope, has ended not with a bang, but a whimper. Why did this happen and where do we go from here?

The answer to the second question is far from certain, but the answer to the first, though complicated, is clear. The Ne'eman plan would have the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements cooperate in preparing candidates for conversion in an undetermined way, with the conversion itself held under Orthodox auspices.

The Israeli Chief Rabbinate, however, refused to endorse or participate in the work of the commission, or even to meet with its members lest it would implicitly confer recognition on Reform and Conservative Judaism.

And then, on Monday, the Chief Rabbinate threw more uncertainty over the issue when it rejected the committee's idea of non-Orthodox rabbis participating in a conversion-training institute.

The move, which had been expected, prompted the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel to issue a joint statement saying that the Chief Rabbinate had "declared war on the Reform and Conservative movements."

Monday's events focused the attention back on a more modest "technical" agreement, which was recently achieved by a group convened by Avraham Burg, chairman of the Jewish Agency. Reportedly, it was endorsed by a representative of the Sephardic Chief Rabbi. It provides that those converted by all three movements in Israel would be accepted as Jews by the government. The Chief Rabbinate would continue to reject non-Orthodox converts and hold that the yud on their identity cards stands for "Israeli" rather than "Jew." Even this proposal may prove impossible to implement if it requires Knesset approval.

An agreement of that nature could have been achieved by the Ne'eman Commission early on. Indeed, that was its original mandate. Ne'eman, however, sought a more substantive understanding that would resolve, once and for all, the conflict between the movements. That this laudable goal proved impossible to attain is sad, but hardly surprising.

The current crisis did not emerge overnight like a mushroom after a rainstorm. It has a context — the longstanding, Israeli government-granted Orthodox monopoly over personal-status issues. Imagine being told that you or your child cannot be married by a rabbi without the permission of a bureaucrat at a government-sanctioned agency. Or visualize being told that your deceased loved one cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery without that agency's approval. Imagine the U.S. government spending billions of dollars yearly on clergy salaries, living allowances to unemployed seminarians and their families, and building houses of worship for one religious movement, but not others.

This is not a hypothetical issue involving a few people. It affects every Jew in Israel who is denied the rabbi of his or her choice. It affects all Israeli parents who want to adopt a child with non-Jewish birth parents, but cannot have the child converted and registered as a Jew unless they agree that the entire family will become Orthodox. It affects hundreds of thousands of olim from the former Soviet Union whom the Chief Rabbinate does not consider Jewish, but will not convert unless they agree to accept Orthodoxy. Such a situation could not stand for a moment in a country that guarantees its citizens freedom of religion, but that is how it stands in Israel.

The name for this tyranny is the status quo. The status quo is a kind of Jewish holy grail for the Israeli Chief Rabbinate whose monopoly it protects, its Orthodox supporters and Israeli politicians who hide behind it. Nonetheless, it perpetuates an intolerable injustice.

Some claim that Reform and Conservative Jews caused the present turmoil by bringing legal actions seeking recognition of their converts by the government of Israel. That is like accusing American blacks of fomenting a crisis by turning to the courts to secure their civil rights and end legalized discrimination.

In truth, both sides have tried to change the status quo in Israel. The Orthodox have tried repeatedly to amend the Law of Return and upgrade the discrimination against non-Orthodox converts from de facto to de jure. And the non-Orthodox have tried to seek relief in Israel's judicial system.

Some people point to the Reform movement's so-called "patrilineal descent" resolution as a source of the problem, but that argument is sheer hypocrisy. The Israeli Reform movement requires the children of Jewish fathers to convert according to traditional criteria, yet the Orthodox authorities still refuse to accept them.

Another bogus claim is that Reform rabbis endorse instant conversions. In fact, as widely reported, the only instant conversions in Israel are those purchased from a handful of corrupt Orthodox rabbis.

Where do we go from here? Whatever becomes of the Ne'eman report or the Burg compromise, the struggle over the status quo will surely continue in the courts, in the Knesset and among Jewish people everywhere. Disagreement over fundamental principles has been a familiar feature of Jewish life from time immemorial. Such disagreements can even be healthy when they are l'shem shamayim, for the ultimate good of God and the Jewish people.

Sadly, today's dispute involves, instead, lashon hara and sinat chinam, vilification and senseless hatred. So long as eminent Israeli Orthodox rabbis call Reform and Conservative Jews and their rabbis "clowns," "priests," "worse than the Arabs," "haters of God" and worse, so long as respected leaders of our own Jewish community are subjected to vicious personal attacks by a local rabbi in the pages of this newspaper, so long as the mitzvah of ahavat Yisrael, love of all Jews, is abandoned, solutions to our problems will never be attained. Whatever else we do, we need to find a way to speak respectfully and lovingly to and about each other, and soon.