News Analysis: Conversion compromise unlikely in near future

JERUSALEM — Attempts to forge a compromise over the ongoing conversion controversy in Israel appear to be on the verge of failure.

Tuesday, 170 American Reform Jewish leaders on a mission to Israel warned the government of a severe response from U.S. Jewry if it pushed through a bill that would codify into law the Orthodox monopoly over conversions performed in Israel.

And in a New York meeting the same day, leaders of the Conservative movement's rabbinate expressed their deep frustration, often in biting tones, to Shmuel Sisso, Israel's consul general in that city.

Orthodox parties in Israel have been pressing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to revive legislation regarding the conversion bill.

As a result, the premier signaled last week during a meeting with his coalition partners that the government would indeed revive the legislation.

The move followed a decision by the Conservative movement to renew a petition in Israel's High Court of Justice aimed at winning recognition of its conversions of adopted children.

The case had been frozen for about a year while a committee headed by Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman tried to hammer out a compromise to the conversion crisis.

The Conservative and Reform movements accepted the committee's conclusions, which called for the creation of a joint conversion institute involving the three major streams of Judaism while leaving the performance of the conversions under Orthodox control.

But the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate never agreed to the proposal, which the liberal movements said forced them to return to court.

Netanyahu and other government officials contend that the Conservative and Reform movements broke an agreement to freeze their litigation in return for freezing government legislation.

He said last week that this was the reason his government was pressing ahead with the conversion bill.

The latest developments suggest that nearly one year after a truce was called in an effort to reach a compromise in the battle over religious pluralism, the parties are back where they started.

Last Friday, the Conservative and Reform movements sent a letter to Netanyahu accusing the government of presenting "a distorted picture" of the "developments that led to the government's present initiative."

The letter added that the Ne'eman recommendations carry no weight since the Chief Rabbinate never signed on to the proposals.

It also explained that when the liberal movements froze legal proceedings, it was "explicitly clear that the courts would be asked to renew their deliberations on this matter if no agreement were reached among the parties."

During Tuesday's showdown, the 170 U.S. Reform rabbis and lay leaders faced off with Ne'eman over the conversion issue.

Several told Ne'eman their communities were losing patience and predicted a backlash in support for Israel if an acceptable compromise were not reached.

The board of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, meeting in New York with Sisso, sounded a similar note.

The Conservative rabbis passed a resolution at their meeting protesting the Israeli government's recent actions, and calling upon Netanyahu to both pull the bill out of consideration and to "cease and desist" from his government's "campaign of disinformation," which they say is being disseminated to smear the Conservative movement.

Reaction among the Conservative grass roots to the renewed legislation is beginning to grow stronger, rabbis said at the meeting.

"My community is hurt that Israel is rejecting them," said Conservative Rabbi Kass Abelson, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth El in Minneapolis.

For his part, Ne'eman urged all sides to return to the table for dialogue.

"Let us resolve and solve these issues ourselves without a solution imposed upon us by the courts, and without legislation," he told the Reform leaders in Jerusalem.

Ne'eman, who criticized leaders from all sides for using inflammatory rhetoric, also said some Reform rabbis had complicated efforts to create a dialogue with the Orthodox by agreeing to perform homosexual marriages and to define Jewishness by patrilineal descent.

Reform and Conservative representatives defended their decisions to return to court, and told Ne'eman and Sisso they had no choice because no progress has been made.

In New York, Sisso urged the Conservative rabbis to have patience and to appreciate the gains they had already made.

But in Jerusalem, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations and leader of the visiting delegation, told reporters after Ne'eman spoke that "we refuse to accept a situation where we withdraw from court and yet, at the same time, are unable to perform conversions or have conversions recognized."

He said the Reform movement wants dialogue but Orthodox leaders refuse to talk. Yoffie also said the frustration of the delegation members accurately reflected growing anger among U.S. Jews.

"American Jews are losing patience," he said. "They don't understand the intricacies of these compromises. What they know is that there is a profound inequality that exists here, that their rabbis are not rabbis."

Earlier, at a meeting of the Knesset's Absorption Committee on the conversion issue, Philip Meltzer, president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, delivered a similar message to Knesset members from across the political spectrum.

He urged Israeli legislators not to "drive a wedge between the state of Israel and the 90 percent of U.S. Judaism that is Reform and Conservative," and warned that North American Jewry "will react negatively and with hostility" if a conversion bill is pushed through.

Rabbi Aryeh Gamliel, deputy minister of religious affairs and a member of the fervently religious Shas Party, was the only Orthodox Knesset member to attend.

He said Shas had no choice but to legislate after the court case was revived, and accused the Conservative movement of being "provocative" by returning to court "in order to destroy the status quo."

The Orthodox parties, he pledged, would never be able to compromise on the conversion issue since it is an issue of halachah, Jewish law.

Gamliel sidestepped questions by committee chairwoman Naomi Blumenthal of Likud, who asked whether or not he accepts the Ne'eman Committee's compromise proposals for a conversion institute.

So far, it does not appear that the government will be able to muster a majority to support the conversion bill. Coalition parties, including Yisrael Ba'Aliyah, the immigrant-rights party, have indicated that they oppose the legislation.

The government also is considering pushing through legislation based on the Ne'eman Committee's recommendations instead of the conversion bill. But the Conservative and Reform movements also object to that route, saying it would amount to legislating the Orthodox monopoly over conversions in a different guise.

In addition, they say, legislation — even of the Ne'eman recommendations — would destroy a crucial element of a compromise that was meant to forge a historic reconciliation among Judaism's major streams.