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FOCUS ON ISSUES Netanyahu angers non-Orthodox on conversion bill during U.S. visit

NEW YORK, April 7 (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu”s cancellation of an appearance before a major Reform movement gathering this week in Washington deepened the anger provoked by the advance of divisive conversion legislation in the Knesset. And Netanyahu did not help the cause of harmony by quipping at a Monday afternoon news conference, “It is probably easier to make peace with the Palestinians than to resolve this satisfactorily”” between the Jews. Nonetheless, some hopes were being pinned on a Monday night meeting between Netanyahu and leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements and the fund-raising establishment to discuss compromises to the legislation. Others feel that compromises that have surfaced are unlikely to be accepted by the Orthodox parties in Netanyahu”s governing coalition, which have made the passage of the measure a condition of their remaining in the government. The bill would give the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate exclusive control over conversions performed in Israel, in effect barring the recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions performed there. The Knesset passed the measure last week in the first of three votes known as readings. Netanyahu played down the legislation in the news conference, saying that it “won”t change anything”” and it only “formalizes something which has been informal”” throughout the history of the state. But an atmosphere of urgency prevailed as a delegation of leaders from the 1,400-strong Conservative Rabbinical Assembly left their annual convention in Boston to attend the meeting with Netanyahu in Washington. “We declare that we have had enough,”” said a proposed Rabbinical Assembly resolution slated for adoption this week. “We are outraged at the latest attempt to once again deny full religious rights to our segment of world Jewry, an act that denies the pluralistic nature of Judaism and betrays the inclusive vision of Zionism.”” Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the assembly, said, as he was en route to the nation”s capital, that he wanted to convey to Israeli leaders the depth of concern among his constituents. At the same time, he said he wanted evidence that “we are being heard and there is a willingness to deal with this issue in a constructive way.”” Netanyahu”s representatives said a scheduling conflict forced the cancellation of his appearance Monday afternoon at the Reform Religious Action Center”s Consultation on Conscience, attended by 500 people from across the nation. The premier”s itinerary included a series of meetings with President Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and other top U.S. officials. At the same time, he was able to honor his speaking engagements before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, and the largely evangelical Voices United for Israel. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said the prime minister”s cancellation of the Religious Action Center appearance would be perceived by many as a “deliberate affront and a failure to recognize the anguish”” caused by events in Israel. “Reform and Conservative Jews are looking to the prime minister for moral leadership, and we hoped he would offer, in a public forum, his plan to avoid a schism between the State of Israel and North American Jews.”” He also said Netanyahu had long been confident of his ability to “convince American Jewry of the correctness of his positions.”” But he said sources told him that the prime minister suddenly grew concerned that he would get a “very negative reception”” in light of the Knesset legislation. Indeed, anger was at a high pitch at several Reform and Conservative gatherings over the weekend after last week”s Knesset vote on the measure leaders here have lobbied so hard to thwart. The action prompted the Conservative and Reform movements to issue an unusually strong joint statement, calling on 1,800 congregations across North America to boycott Knesset members who support the bill in its final vote. “We adopt this policy with regret,”” the statement said. But “we ask our synagogues to refrain from extending invitations to them to appear as speakers or lecturers, or as guests of honor in our institutions. “Furthermore, we ask our congregational leaders to refrain from supporting any communal activity to which such Knesset members have been invited.”” Touching on a highly sensitive issue, the statement also expressed continued support for the central fund-raising campaign for Israel run by federations and the United Jewish Appeal. At the same time, it called on its members “to encourage their federations to provide increased support to Conservative and Reform programs in Israel.”” It singled out the Jewish Agency for Israel, the primary recipient in Israel of UJA funds, to reallocate more money to such programs. The agency now gives about $1 million annually to each of the three major streams. For his part, Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg blasted the legislation in speeches he made this weekend at the national assembly of the Association of Reform Zionists of America in Washington and the Rabbinical Assembly in Boston. “The law is a danger to the future of the unity of the Jewish people,”” he said, calling for a separation of synagogue and state. “As politics has corrupted religion, religion has corrupted politics.”” At the same time, he warned against any boycott of the fund-raising campaign. Philip Meltzer, the president of ARZA, challenged the federation world in a sermon he delivered at ARZA”s national assembly. “Obscene amounts of funding are funneled through the government of Israel to Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox institutions, while virtually no funding is received from the government for Reform and Conservative institutions.”” “It is time for our federations to affirmatively act to redress the imbalance,”” he said. The fund-raising establishment, in turn, has tried to demonstrate that it shares its donors” concerns. It issued a statement of protest after last week”s Knesset vote and has implied that it will look into increasing its allocations to the religious streams in Israel. Reform and Conservative conversions have been performed in Israel for years but have not been sanctioned by law. The Knesset initiative is a response to a 1995 Supreme Court ruling that no law existed to justify that non-recognition. Orthodox Jewry as a whole is united behind the legislation. But other American Jewish leaders have warned Israeli officials repeatedly that Reform and Conservative Jewry view this legislation as a slap at their legitimacy and that there would be repercussions for the central fund-raising campaign for Israel. Netanyahu has repeatedly responded by saying that internal Israeli politics give him little alternative, and by pledging to protect the “status quo,”” which validates Reform and Conservative conversions abroad. Only last week, he told a group of Jewish journalists in Israel that the imbroglio was overinflated as a result of a “misrepresentation”” of the facts by leaders of the liberal Jewish movements in Israel. And Monday in Washington he once again blamed these movements in Israel for causing the problem by bringing their cause to the Supreme Court. He said that “it might be possible to change the legislation”” if cases brought by the Reform and Conservative movements are withdrawn. It was hard for some to imagine what Netanyahu might have offered at the public Reform gathering that would have mollified the intensifying anger. At the private meeting, Netanyahu was to be joined by Alexander Lubotsky, a Knesset member from the Third Way party and point man for the governing coalition on religious matters. That made it likely that a compromise Lubotsky is helping circulate in Israel would be discussed. That compromise calls for the legislation to be halted in exchange for some recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions. That recognition would be reflected in a classification as “Jewish”” on the national identity cards of such Israeli converts. But in central population registry records, subject to certain privacy laws, such conversions would be categorized according to their religious streams. That differentiation would be most important to the Orthodox establishment in connection with marriage, over which it would continue to have exclusive control. The Reform and Conservative streams in both countries have expressed some openness to such a plan, but say it is a political non-starter. “This would lead to a recognition of conversions in a way that we never had happen before”” in Israel, said Yoffie. But he said he believed that it was “inconceivable”” the Orthodox parties would agree.