Conversion crisis may head back to courts, Knesset

JERUSALEM — Now that efforts for resolving the conversion crisis through negotiations apparently have failed — with Israel's Reform and Conservative movements saying that the Chief Rabbinate has "declared war" on them — no one is sure where the battle over religious pluralism in Israel is headed.

The Reform and Conservative movements are vowing to head back to the Israeli courts to press their legal case for official recognition in the Jewish state, and the fervently religious say they will revive efforts to pass conversion legislation.

But nothing is that simple when it comes to the issue that has galvanized forces on all sides of the debate and has threatened to create a great rift between Israel and American Jewry, the majority of whom are not Orthodox.

The latest chapter in the ongoing struggle comes after Israel's Chief Rabbinate Council failed Monday to endorse a recommended solution to the conversion crisis. The solution was formulated by an interdenominational committee headed by Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman.

Even though the council stopped short of rejecting the Ne'eman Committee's proposals explicitly, the liberal movements' backlash against the rabbinate was swift and strong..

"This is a declaration of war on the Jewish people," said Rabbi Uri Regev of the Reform movement and Rabbi Ehud Bandel, who heads the Masorti, or Conservative movement in Israel, in a combined statement.

Regev and Bandel, who were the Reform and Conservative representatives on the Ne'eman committee, added in the statement that "the Chief Rabbinate endangers splitting the Jewish people."

For his part, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose coalition is threatened by this dispute, maintained that the council's decision was a step toward consensus.

Despite the blow to a seven-month effort to resolve the issue through negotiations, the rabbis and the politicians are likely in the short term to persevere in their efforts rather than admit failure and immediately trigger a political crisis.

After all, none of the parties involved in the dispute wants to be accused of provoking a coalition crisis while anxious Israelis scramble to get the latest-model gas masks in case an American attack on Iraq prompts Saddam Hussein to launch missiles at Israel.

But the Iraqi crisis may provide only a temporary respite to the religious pluralism battle in Israel.

The Orthodox political parties, which have opposed any initiative to grant legal recognition to non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel, are committed to leaving the Netanyahu government if the Knesset does not pass legislation codifying the Orthodox control over conversions.

But given the current political sentiment, the Orthodox parties, if forced to choose between legislation and secession, would likely find themselves forced toward the latter.

A day after the Chief Rabbinate Council's meeting, 72 Knesset members, including Netanyahu, signed a petition supporting the Ne'eman Committee's recommendations — a clear sign that the Orthodox, who hold 23 seats in the 120-member Knesset, would lose the legislative battle.

The signatories also voiced support for the Ne'eman Committee's negotiation process rather than litigation, which has been pursued by the Reform and Conservative movements.

The High Court of Justice may be hoping for a negotiated solution as well.

Tuesday, the court deferred hearings on the case of an adopted child converted to Judaism by a Conservative rabbi in Israel.

Lawyers for the state told the court that the government needed time to win approval both for the Ne'eman Committee proposals and for those of a separate committee that dealt specifically with the conversion of adopted children.

Legal sources warned, though, that another case, involving several adult converts, is due to be heard next month and is likely to bring the controversy to a head unless a solution amenable to the three main streams of Judaism is achieved.

Both sides had agreed last year to suspend the legislative and legal efforts while the Ne'eman Committee sought a solution.

Last month, the Ne'eman Committee recommended that the Orthodox Rabbinate retain sole jurisdiction over conversions in Israel and that non-Orthodox rabbis be allowed to participate in a conversion training institute to be overseen by the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The Chief Rabbinate Council, in a unanimous decision Monday, pledged to set up more religious courts to handle conversions. But the council pointedly declined to address the crucial part of the proposal — the creation of a joint institute to prepare candidates for conversion.

The Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, said in an interview following the decision that the religious courts were indifferent as to where a candidate had learned about Judaism. They received everyone "with open hearts" and applied the same criteria regardless, he said.

That, like the wording of the council's decision, seemed intended to create a vague impression that the rabbinate did not totally reject the Ne'eman Committee's formula.

But the rabbinate issued a statement vowing to prevent any conversion "or mimic conversion" in Israel that was not carried out under the rabbinate's authority — and demanded that this exclusivity be enshrined in law.

Without referring to the liberal movements explicitly, the statement blasted "those who are trying to shake the foundations of the Jewish religion, causing rifts among the people and causing them to stray from the generations-old heritage."

Such efforts "have already had a disastrous effect and caused confusion among Diaspora Jewry," the statement added. "The sages of Israel have barred any cooperation with them and their methods, and no one should consider establishing joint institutions with them."

That seemed to rule out any hope the council might in the future accept Ne'eman's recommendation that a joint body run the proposed conversion training institutes.

Some observers felt the choice of language was an attempt to rule out cooperation with the Reform movement while leaving some room for cooperation with the Conservatives.