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U.S. Jewish leaders in Israel to forestall bill on conversion

JERUSALEM, June 16 (JTA) — Efforts to negotiate a compromise on controversial conversion legislation have moved into high gear. On Monday, a delegation of Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders from the United States and Israel held a second day of consultations with government and religious leaders to find a compromise on an issue that threatens to drive a wedge between Israel and U.S. Jewry. The pending conversion bill would cement into law exclusive Orthodox authority over conversions performed in Israel. The religious parties have threatened to bring down the Netanyahu government by leaving the coalition if the bill does not become law and have been pressing for final Knesset action by the end of the month. Members of the non-Orthodox streams in Israel and in the Diaspora have protested that the legislation would not only delegitimize Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel, but would also negate their practice of Judaism. American Jews, most of whom are non-Orthodox, have been cautiously eying the progress of the conversion bill, with some saying they would withhold their donations to Israel if the measure passed the Knesset. In Israel, some Orthodox Jews have vowed to fight the non-Orthodox movements’ efforts to seek greater recognition within the Jewish state. Simmering resentments against the non-Orthodox streams boiled to the surface last week, when hundreds of fervently Orthodox Jews attacked a group of Conservative Jews who were holding a mixed prayer service at the Western Wall during Shavuot. Attempts by a female member of the Conservative congregation to read from a Torah scroll reportedly prompted angry shouts of “Nazis,” “murderers,” “reformers” and “whores” from a crowd of fervently Orthodox Jews pressing in around the worshippers. When the Conservative Jews were escorted from the Western Wall Plaza by security units, students at a nearby yeshiva pelted them with rocks and bags of excrement. The acting mayor of Jerusalem later reserved his criticism for the Conservative congregation. “The very fact that the Conservative Jews, who symbolize the destruction of the Jewish people, came to the place that is holiest to the Jewish people is a provocation,” Haim Miller of the fervently Orthodox Agudat Yisrael Party told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. “They have no reason to be in this place,” Miller added. Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Yigal Bibi of the National Religious Party also termed the Conservative congregation’s mixed prayer service a “provocation.” But he added, “There’s no need to take the law into one’s own hands.” This week, the leaders from the two non-Orthodox streams of Judaism emerged from meetings with the prime minister and other government officials encouraged that the political leaders appeared to be interested in finding a compromise aimed at preventing the conversion bill from reaching the Knesset floor. But they said a meeting Monday with former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira seemed to reinforce the sentiment that the Orthodox establishment “is not interested in reaching a compromise.” Efforts to seek a compromise began after the Knesset passed the conversion bill April 1, in the first of three Knesset votes, known as readings. The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel have both brought cases over the past several years to Israel’s High Court of Justice to secure recognition for their conversions. The coalition leadership announced Monday that it was willing to freeze legislative work on the conversion bill if the Reform and Conservative movements withdrew their court petitions. Numerous proposals on how converts would be registered in Israel’s population registry and on identity cards have been raised and rejected in recent weeks. One of the latest proposals, initiated by Cabinet ministers Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party and Natan Sharansky of Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, calls for the formation of a committee comprised of representatives from the three main streams of Judaism. The committee would then try to find the best compromise among the competing proposals. The delegation of liberal movement leaders met Monday with Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who would reportedly serve as the Orthodox representative on the committee. Lichtenstein, who heads the Har Etzion Yeshiva at Alon Shvut near Bethlehem in the West Bank, is highly regarded and considered a moderate in the national religious camp.

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