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American Jewish group urges Israelis to oppose conversion bill

JERUSALEM, May 28 (JTA) — In an attempt to rouse the Israeli public against a pending conversion bill, an American Jewish organization is taking out a full-page advertisement in the country’s largest-circulation daily newspaper. This Friday, Yediot Achronot will carry a Hebrew-language ad, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, urging Israelis to actively oppose any “measures and rhetoric that question the legitimacy of the religious life of the overwhelming majority of American Jews.” The bill would cement in law exclusive Orthodox authority over conversions performed in Israel. Its passage was a condition of the religious parties when they joined the government coalition a year ago. The legislation has sparked the ire of many American Jews, most of whom identify as Reform or Conservative. The bill passed April 1 in the first of three Knesset votes known as readings. Further action was postponed to allow time for a compromise between Orthodox parties and non-Orthodox movements to be negotiated. But this week Israel’s justice minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, said the bill would be brought to the Knesset for final action next month if no compromise is reached. Unless the bill is stopped, the ad states, “the attempts to imprison religious expression in Israel within the confines of a state-imposed Orthodoxy will not only engender conflict among Israelis, but will alienate the Diaspora, making Israel — however large its population and sacred its soil — progressively less relevant to Jews everywhere else.” AJCommittee’s Israel director, Yossi Alpher, said the ad is an attempt “to reach as many Israelis as possible.” In Alpher’s view, the conversion bill’s potential to “alienate large segments of the American Jewish community by bringing it to a position where it no longer has an interest in supporting Israel is not well enough understood by the Israeli public.” In another development on the conversion front, the Israeli government has agreed to expand the existing network of Orthodox conversion classes for new immigrants. Absorption Minister Yuli Edelstein, a leader in the Yisrael Ba’Aliyah immigrants-rights party, was the moving force behind the measure, which was worked out between the Absorption Ministry, the Religious Affairs Ministry, the Education Ministry, the Chief Rabbinate and the Jewish Agency for Israel. An Absorption Ministry spokesman said that between 100,000 and 200,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union are not halachically Jewish, adding that the agreement “will enable those who wish to convert many more options.” He estimated that approximately 10,000 immigrants are “very interested” in converting to Judaism. “Many have been reluctant to enroll before, due to the long bureaucratic process,” he said. “We believe this will shorten the process considerably.” But Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, said, “What is being described as a major step forward will help only a negligible amount of people.” Regev asserted that “the real issue has still not been addressed.” Will the standards dictated by the Orthodox Rabbinate “be relaxed?” he asked. “Will the Rabbinate begin to waive their demand?” A source close to the committee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said in an interview that the Chief Rabbinate may be willing to drop its demand that all potential converts maintain an Orthodox lifestyle. But a spokesman for Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi- Doron said: “The standards haven’t changed. All immigrants will have to undergo a proper conversion.”