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FOCUS ON ISSUES Compromises are sought after conversion measure is approved

NEW YORK, March 25 (JTA) — The Israeli Cabinet received the news of last week”s Tel Aviv suicide bombing as it was debating an issue divisive to the Jewish world. At that meeting, the Cabinet approved an amendment that would bar the legal recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel. Whether the amendment gets sent to the Knesset before the Parliament breaks next week for Passover depends on the outcome of a flurry of negotiations now taking place between politicians and Reform and Conservative representatives. Such legislative action has been expected for some time, despite blitzes on Israeli officialdom by delegations of Diaspora Jewish leaders warning that it would alienate many U.S. Jews and should be forestalled. Although the timetable of the legislation is uncertain, and three readings are required for Knesset passage, American Jewish religious and fund-raising establishments here are girding for the repercussions. The Israeli Cabinet action was likely to top the agenda of a meeting already scheduled for this week in New York for fund-raisers and religious movement representatives. The Jewish community”s central fund-raising campaign, run by the United Jewish Appeal and local federations for both Israel and for local needs, has been a target of protest in this political struggle. Some critics claim that it is not doing enough to champion the rights of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel. “In light of the action by the Cabinet, there is a necessity for action by the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Jewish Appeal,”” said Philip Meltzer, president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. “This is an attempt to delegitimize 85 to 90 percent of American Jewry who are their constituents, and we would hope they would react with outrage.”” “Mere statements are not enough,”” said Meltzer, referring to resolutions adopted by the fund-raising establishment protesting changes in Israeli religious laws that would be divisive for world Jewry. “Perhaps it”s time to organize missions to make clear the depth of feeling by American Jewry on this issue.”” For its part, CJF distributed a memo this week, saying that it would continue to voice its “concern that any legislative amendment that has the potential to form a wedge between Israel and Diaspora Jewry is unacceptable.”” It also urged federations to send a similar message to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials. Richard Wexler, national chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, called the Israeli political situation “frustrating for the national system and the campaign”” and said that “the implication for allocations is serious.”” Wexler said the fund-raising establishment was “derelict”” in recent years in the fight to strengthen the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel. But, at the same time, he said, “where were the movements?”” Still, he said, “we ought to be more responsive to the movements consistent with meeting our responsibility to raise money for Jews in need.”” For its part, U.S. Orthodox Jewry welcomed the Cabinet action. The Orthodox community “is united as never before on the issue advocating the passing of the conversion law by the Knesset,”” said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union. “Every day the law was not passed”” contributed to “greater friction in the Jewish community,”” he said. The legislative action reinforcing exclusive Orthodox control over conversions was demanded by the fervently Orthodox parties as a condition of their joining the coalition of the Netanyahu government. Reform and Conservative conversions have been performed in Israel for years, but have not been legally recognized. The Supreme Court in 1995 said there was no legal reason for barring that recognition for civil purposes. That ruling prompted the determination of the Orthodox parties to pass legislation foreclosing such recognition. These Orthodox coalition partners voted last Friday against the amendment put forward because they see it as too narrow. They want a law that also bans conversions performed abroad of Israelis who prepare for their conversions in Israel. Non-Orthodox conversions of Diaspora Jews performed outside Israel are recognized. Netanyahu has pledged not to change their status. Meanwhile, Knesset Member Alexander Lubotsky from The Third Way party has been appointed to represent the government coalition on religious legislation. Against this backdrop of political pressure and looming deadlines, he is trying to craft compromises with Reform and Conservative leaders in Israel around conversion cases they have pending in the Israeli courts. The ball, however, is more immediately in the court of the Conservative movement. A Supreme Court hearing is scheduled for May 13 on a petition filed by the Conservative movement on behalf of families seeking recognition of conversions for children they adopted from abroad and had converted on the Conservative Kibbutz Hanaton. If no legislation is submitted before the Knesset break next week, the Supreme Court could issue a ruling granting legitimacy to the conversions. The Orthodox parties want the legislation introduced before the hearing to preclude that possibility. Lubotsky is trying to convince the Conservative movement to postpone its case for six weeks, and in return, drop any legislative initiative on conversion, according to Rabbi Einat Ramon, spokeswoman for the Conservative/Masorti movement in Israel. “We say this is no solution,”” said Ramon. “Lubotsky knows it”s just pushing the problem underneath the carpet.”” “What do we get in return?”” she continued, adding, “We are in a dilemma.”” For its part, the Reform movement has also been meeting with Lubotsky. Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform Israel Religious Action Center, said Lubotsky has asked him to postpone the cases pending on behalf of his movement in return for “preventing legislation.”” The Reform movement has 16 motions in the courts on behalf of Israeli residents who have studied for their conversion in Israel, gone abroad for conversions and returned seeking recognition as Jews in the civil population registry. They want the same legal status as people in the Diaspora who convert through Reform and Conservative auspices, move to Israel and are recognized as Jews in civil matters. The Cabinet”s action on conversion comes against a landscape that Reform and Conservative leaders depict as an onslaught against their movements.
In a separate legislative initiative, a Knesset member from the fervently Orthodox Shas party has submitted a bill seeking to change the status of the plaza in front of the Western Wall from a national to a religious site. That would transfer authority for the site to the Ministry of Religion and apparently would render Orthodox practice the only legitimate practice there. The prospect prompted an angry letter on the Internet by the International Committee for Women of the Wall, who have been fighting for years in the Supreme Court for the right to pray at the site as they see fit. “The Kotel is not a synagogue,”” the women wrote, using the Hebrew reference to the Wall, “it is a national holy site for all the Jewish people.”” “The moral integrity of the government is being put at risk by such blatant political maneuvering,”” the letter said. In addition, the Israeli media last week widely reported that Regev threatened a boycott of the Diaspora”s central fund-raising campaign to protest an Israeli army ban on visits to Reform synagogues and other institutions. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said Regev”s remarks reflected “anger and frustration”” at the prospect of such a policy. Yoffie said “preliminary inquiries”” had shown that there is no such official policy. “If there were to be such a policy we would be distressed and respond in an appropriate way. But we are not inclined to make threats,”” said Yoffie. In fact, there is a new military directive that says army units should not include in their educational programs visits to any sites about which any soldier feels uncomfortable. According to an Israeli government spokesman, however, it does not single out Reform or any other institutions. The new directive was a response to a parliamentary inquiry after a visit by a military unit to a Reform center in Haifa.