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FOCUS ON ISSUES Non-Orthodox confront premier on conversion bill during U.S. visit

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NEW YORK, April 8 (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week managed to exacerbate and then deflect the anger provoked here by the advance of divisive conversion legislation in the Knesset. First, he canceled a Monday appearance in Washington before a major Reform movement gathering, citing a scheduling conflict. But organizers from the Religious Action Center said it would be perceived as a “deliberate affront and a failure to recognize the anguish”” caused by events in Israel. In the same vein, he then quipped at a nationally televised news conference, “It is probably easier to make peace with the Palestinians than to resolve this satisfactorily”” between the Jews. But his tenor shifted in a private meeting Monday night in Washington with leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements and the fund- raising establishment. After what some participants described as a “tough”” discussion, Netanyahu appeared eager to find ways to narrow the growing rift between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry spurred by the legislation. 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. At the news conference shortly before the meeting, Netanyahu played down the legislation, saying that it “won”t change anything”” and that it only “formalizes something which has been informal”” throughout the history of the state.
But at the private meeting, after participants told him such “dismissive rhetoric”” was “unacceptable,”” they said he showed a new understanding of the impact of the law on American Jews and made a commitment to search for “creative solutions.”” Most important, they said, he asked two key advisers to stay in the United States for several more days to begin a process of crafting compromises with leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements. But some of the participants made it clear that they will remain guarded until they see results. “It is fair to say we remain skeptical,”” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement”s Union of American Hebrew Congregations. “He”s made no public statement of a conciliatory nature, so how far will he go out on a limb?”” he said, referring to the prime minister. At the same time, he added, “There”s enough on the table that we feel a responsibility to pursue it.”” What is evident to all is that this new initiative would be only one piece of a large and complex puzzle. Any compromise would require the approval of the Orthodox parties in Netanyahu”s governing coalition, which have made the passage of the legislation a condition of their remaining in the government. It also would necessitate consultations with the Reform and Conservative movement leadership in Israel. Meanwhile, anger was at a high pitch at several Reform and Conservative gatherings over the weekend. A delegation of leaders from the 1,400-strong Conservative Rabbinical Assembly left their annual convention in Boston to attend the meeting with Netanyahu. Despite their reports Tuesday morning that headway was made in Washington, a demonstration of more than 150 rabbis was planned in front of the Israeli Consulate where a statement was to be submitted. “We declare that we have had enough,”” said the statement. “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 Rabbinical Assembly of America, attended the Netanyahu meeting, where he said the depth of that feeling was made clear to the prime minister. Meyers has been named one of the members of the team enlisted by Netanyahu to explore possible compromises. The group will include two members from the Reform movement and two from the Conservative movement, as well as Israeli officials. “This is a difficult and delicate moment and we”ve all agreed to try very hard to find creative solutions,”” said Meyers. “We all agree this is a first step.”” The Knesset action last week prompted the Conservative and Reform movements to issue an unusually strong joint statement. It called 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 over the 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. The pending legislation would not affect such conversions. 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 “it might be possible to change the legislation”” if cases brought by the Reform and Conservative movements are withdrawn. But signs of Netanyahu”s seriousness at the private meeting perhaps was best evidenced by the presence of Alexander Lubotsky, a Knesset member from the Third Way party and point man for the governing coalition on religious matters. Netanyahu led the meeting for one hour, and then left. Afterward, Lubotsky and Bobby Brown, the premier”s Diaspora affairs adviser, stayed for more than an additional hour to discuss strategies. But, participants stress, details of possible compromises were postponed until the next, smaller meeting, hoped for by week”s end.

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