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News Analysis: Effort to Solve Conversion Crisis Near Collapse Amid New Threats

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Efforts in Israel to reconcile the three major streams of Judaism appear to have collapsed.

With the Knesset due to reconvene Oct. 27, the Orthodox parties threw down the gauntlet this week, saying they intend to push ahead with legislation on two issues — conversions and religious councils — that would codify Orthodox control over religious life in Israel.

If the bills are not passed, the parties threatened to bolt the governing coalition and bring down the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Reform and Conservative movements, responding to the Orthodox rejection of proposed solutions to the conversion crisis, vowed to return to the courts to seek recognition for non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel.

The issues of conversion and religious councils have come to the fore during the past year in the ongoing battle over religious pluralism in the Jewish state, a conflict that has created a deep schism between Israel and the predominantly non-Orthodox Jewish community in the United States.

The latest developments in the crisis come just weeks before the annual meeting of the Council of Jewish Federations as well as national conventions of the Reform and Conservative movements.

Netanyahu is scheduled to address the CJF General Assembly in Indianapolis next month, and he could come under sharp criticism for not blocking the conversion bill and for giving a green light to religious councils legislation.

The Orthodox threat, conveyed Tuesday in a hastily arranged meeting with the premier, came after Israel’s Chief Rabbinate rejected a possible solution to the conversion crisis proposed by a committee headed by Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman.

While the Ne’eman Committee is not formally dead, it appeared that this week’s events seriously imperiled its ability to function.

The Reform and Conservative movements, in a joint statement Tuesday, made it clear that in their view the Orthodox stance had relieved them of an earlier pledge to desist from pursuing legal action to gain recognition for non- Orthodox conversions.

“The Chief Rabbinate’s position leaves us no alternative but to pursue the legal recourse which we have delayed for five months,” said the statement, referring to a compromise reached earlier this year that was the basis for the Ne’eman Committee’s creation.

That compromise called for a suspension by the Orthodox parties of their campaign to pass conversion legislation and a suspension of conversion litigation by the non-Orthodox movements.

After these steps were taken, the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform members of the Ne’eman Committee began seeking a solution acceptable to the three major streams.

Netanyahu created the committee after the Knesset took a first step in April toward passing legislation that would codify Orthodox control over conversions performed in Israel.

It has been clear for months that if the committee was unable to find a solution, the non-Orthodox movements would pursue their conversion-related court cases — and the Orthodox parties would pursue the conversion bill, which requires two more Knesset votes before it can become law.

But this week’s actions by the Orthodox, and the response by the Reform and Conservative movements, seemed to preclude any definitive conclusion to the work of the committee, which had been expected to make its recommendations to the coalition before the Knesset recess ends.

The Prime Minister’s Office, meanwhile, continued to hold out hope for a compromise from the Ne’eman Committee.

“We still believe there is a way to solve problems by Jews talking to Jews,” said Bobby Brown, the premier’s adviser on Diaspora affairs. “I believe that no political or religious faction wants to create a major rift with the Jewish people.”

After Netanyahu met with the Orthodox Knesset members, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that the Ne’eman Committee would continue its work.

“We are extremely close to coming up with recommendations which we believe would preserve halachah and create a situation in which no stream of Judaism would find itself disenfranchised,” said Brown.

In their statement, the Reform and Conservative movements praised Ne’eman for his efforts and said they would continue to work with the committee.

On the religious councils issue, which has not yet come before the Knesset, the prime minister appeared Tuesday to give the go-ahead to his Orthodox coalition partners to pursue the legislative track.

At their meeting, Netanyahu and the Orthodox Knesset members agreed that during the Sukkot holiday a government committee would convene to draft legislation on religious councils.

The Orthodox parties want the Knesset to pass a law that would bar non-Orthodox representatives from local religious councils, an action that would supersede a series of High Court of Justice rulings upholding the right of Reform and Conservative Jews to serve on the councils.

The court is expected to rule later this month on the right of Reform and Conservative Jews to sit on religious councils in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Kiryat Tivon.

The councils, supervised by the Religious Affairs Ministry, have exclusive jurisdiction over marriage, kashrut, burial and other religious matters for all Jews living in Israel.

The breakdown this week in efforts to resolve the conversion crisis came after Ne’eman presented his committee’s preliminary recommendations to the two chief rabbis in a closed meeting.

Under the terms of the proposal, a joint body of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis would select and prepare candidates for conversions, but only Orthodox rabbis would actually perform them. The joint body would be under the auspices of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

In addition, the committee was recommending that Reform and Conservative rabbis would be permitted to perform weddings in Israel, provided that two Orthodox rabbis served as witnesses.

A source close to the Ne’eman Committee said the finance minister was testing the waters to see whether the chief rabbis would endorse a solutions that included roles for Reform and Conservative rabbis.

But the two chief rabbis balked.

“Under no circumstance is this an acceptable situation,” Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron said of the conversion proposal. “Such converts would not be real converts.”

The chief rabbis, who had already scheduled an emergency meeting Monday with the Orthodox legislators to discuss ways to circumvent a pending High Court ruling on non-Orthodox representation on religious councils, reportedly presented the Ne’eman Committee recommendations to the Knesset members.

If the prime minister does not support the Orthodox parties on both pieces of legislation, and they carry out their threat to leave the coalition, they could then attempt to bring down the government in a Knesset no-confidence vote.

But the Orthodox parties’ 23 Knesset members would need the backing of the opposition in such a vote.

Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg urged Labor Party leader Ehud Barak and other opposition Knesset members to provide a “parliamentary safety net” for the Netanyahu government “that would foil the attempts of the Orthodox parties to bring down the government” over religious pluralism issues.

Burg appealed to Barak to refrain from supporting a vote of no confidence over religious legislation issues.

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