Reform Delegation Dismayed by Premier’s Conversion Stance

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for patience from a visiting delegation of U.S. Reform movement leaders.

But by the time his meeting with the delegation was over last Friday, the premier seemed to have succeeded only in angering the visitors.

During the meeting, which focused on the government’s attempts to resolve the ongoing conversion crisis in Israel, Netanyahu pledged to ensure that the liberal streams of Judaism are treated as equals.

“I will not have second-class Jews,” he said, “and I do not want Jews to think of themselves as second class.”

But he incensed the 170 lay leaders and rabbis from the North American Reform movement when he implied that Israel’s recognition of Reform converts to Judaism would open the door to the mass conversion of foreign workers or quickie conversions performed via fax machines.

“How do we prevent 4,000 Romanians and millions from other countries from declaring themselves Jews? Where is the barrier? The question we have here is how do we prevent fax conversions,” Netanyahu said.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and leader of the delegation, called Netanyahu’s suggestion “outrageous.”

During their mission to Israel, which began last week, the U.S. Reform leaders warned the government of a severe response from U.S. Jewry if they pushed through a bill that would codify into law the Orthodox monopoly over conversions performed in Israel.

Orthodox parties in Israel have been pressing Netanyahu to revive legislation regarding the conversion bill.

The premier signaled two weeks ago during a meeting with his coalition partners that the government would indeed revive the legislation.

During last Friday’s meeting, the prime minister insisted that a solution to the conversion crisis could only be reached through a process of “slow transformation.”

“You do not want revolution here,” said Netanyahu, “You want incremental and controlled evolution. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

But after hearing Netanyahu, Philip Meltzer, president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, said the prime minister’s calls for moderation and dialogue “should probably be addressed to those in the haredi community and the Chief Rabbinate who refuse to dialogue” with the more liberal Jewish streams.

David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, was also unimpressed. “There is still an enormous gap between his perception of the issue and ours,” he said.

On Sunday, the visiting Reform leaders urged the Israeli government to set aside a separate section for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall plaza after the delegation held a mixed prayer service there.

“The State of Israel has to recognize that the wall belongs to all Jews,” Yoffie said.

The group of men and women, under heavy police protection, were left undisturbed by fervently Orthodox Jews, or haredim, who call for the separation of sexes during prayers.

Last week, when they first arrived in Israel, the delegation held a mixed service at the wall that also proceeded peacefully.

But in both instances the worshipers, surrounded by police barricades and about 20 police officers, were closer to the parking lot than to the wall itself.

Earlier this month, a group of 250 Conservative worshipers completed prayers on Shavuot morning at the Western Wall under police protection–despite attempts by hundreds of fervently Orthodox Jews to stop the service.

Last year, non-Orthodox Jews who prayed near the Western Wall plaza were attacked by fervently Orthodox Jews who objected to men and women worshiping together.

Orthodox leaders criticized Sunday’s service.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau told Israel Radio he considered the Reform service to be “more of a demonstration than a prayer service,” adding that he hoped the Reform movement’s desire for confrontation had “been satisfied for the moment.”

Police intervention at Sunday’s service was not necessary, since only a few haredim came to look at the worshipers and did not attempt to disrupt them.

As the congregants arrived, an elderly Orthodox man called the group “Christians” and accused them of carrying out a publicity stunt.

A group of three fervently-Orthodox teen-agers stared at the Reform delegation but did not interfere.

“We came to see the joke,” said one youth who declined to provide his name. “They think they are Jews, but they are not.”

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