Premiers comments upset Reform leaders

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for patience from a visiting delegation of U.S. Reform movement leaders.

But by the time his meeting with the delegation was over last Friday, the premier seemed to have succeeded only in angering the visitors.

During the meeting, which focused on the government's attempts to resolve the ongoing conversion crisis in Israel, Netanyahu pledged to ensure that the liberal streams of Judaism are treated as equals.

"I will not have second-class Jews," he said, "and I do not want Jews to think of themselves as second class."

But he incensed the 170 lay leaders and rabbis from the North American Reform movement when he implied that Israel's recognition of Reform converts to Judaism would open the door to the mass conversion of foreign workers or quickie conversions performed via fax machines.

"How do we prevent 4,000 Romanians and millions from other countries from declaring themselves Jews? Where is the barrier? The question we have here is how do we prevent fax conversions," Netanyahu said.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and leader of the delegation, called Netanyahu's suggestion "outrageous."

During their mission to Israel, which began last week, the U.S. Reform leaders 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.

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

The premier signaled two weeks ago during a meeting with his coalition partners that the government would indeed revive the legislation.

During last Friday's meeting, the prime minister insisted that a solution to the conversion crisis could only be reached through a process of "slow transformation."

"You do not want revolution here," said Netanyahu. "You want incremental and controlled evolution."