Netanyahu aides to seek compromise on conversion

NEW YORK (JTA) — At a private meeting Monday night with Reform and Conservative movement leaders, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed to buy some time in the conflict over pending conversion legislation. The controversial measure 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 last week passed the bill in the first of three votes known as readings. The legislative process has been temporarily suspended to allow for a possible compromise to be negotiated. The private meeting in Washington came after a nationally televised news conference at which Netanyahu downplayed the significance of 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 meeting, after participants told him that 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 would 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.” 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. The prime minister stayed at the meeting for one hour. Discussion continued for another hour with his aides, including Bobby Brown, his Diaspora affairs adviser, and Alexander Lubotsky, an Orthodox Knesset member from the Third Way party, who is the coalition’s point man on religious matters. Yoffie said Lubotsky “made it clear he favors pluralism because it is good for Israel and good for the Jewish people.” Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, was also tempered in his tone after the meeting. “This is a difficult and delicate moment and we’ve all agreed to try very hard to find creative solutions,” he said. “We all agree this is a first step.”
Meyers is one of the two Conservative representatives on the newly formed team to explore compromise strategies. There also will be two representatives of the Reform movement, along with Israeli officials. For its part, organized Orthodox Jewry in the United States is united in favor of the legislation. The closed meeting with Netanyahu included representatives of the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Jewish Appeal. Dr. Conrad Giles, president of the CJF, told the prime minister, according to others present, that the issue was not solely a religious one, but one that was having a major impact on Jewish communities nationwide.

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