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Plan deals with conversion and immigrant questions

JERUSALEM, Dec. 12 (JTA) — Israel’s minister of Diaspora affairs is attempting to settle the country’s conversion controversy and the issue of non- Jewish immigrants in one comprehensive proposal.

Conservative leaders in Israel are skeptical about Rabbi Michael Melchior’s proposal, which includes removing nationality clauses from identity cards, and attempting to convince non-Orthodox groups to willingly drop their demand for the right to perform conversions in Israel.

The proposal also advocates mass conversion of non-Jewish immigrants and a tightening of the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to children, spouses and grandchildren of Jews.

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Israel, said he welcomed the proposal to drop the nationality clause and would consider Melchior’s proposal about directing conversion candidates to a joint institute. “But nobody should mistakenly think that our movement intends to abandon its converts and its courts.”

If the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate opens its doors to non-Jewish immigrants and stops demanding they adhere to Orthodoxy as a condition for converting, most potential converts would probably choose an Orthodox procedure, Regev said.

The Reform movement might even recommend that some converts go to liberal Orthodox religious courts to convert. But the movement will continue to demand that the state of Israel recognize Reform conversions.

He added that the non-Orthodox movements will only know in March whether Melchior’s package will work. That is when the first group of students at the joint institute will complete their conversion course, and the Chief Rabbinate will decide whether to convert them.

The proposals have been presented to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who has given Melchior, the minister for Israeli society and world Jewish communities, the green light to carry out a round of talks with all sides in the coming weeks.

Melchior’s office hopes to present a formal proposal to the government before April, when the Supreme Court is due to resume hearings on the conversion issue and possibly issue a final ruling on a conflict that has strained Israel-Diaspora relations for many years.

Barak is expected to be too tied up with his ambitious peace agenda to be personally involved in hammering out a compromise. But his support reflects the government’s desire to enlist the help of U.S. Jewry ahead of intense lobbying that will be needed in Washington to secure funding for possible future peace deals with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians.

A source at Melchior’s office, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the proposals aimed to bring about a de facto situation where Orthodox conversions continue to prevail.

“The final goal is to have one conversion, an Orthodox conversion, but out of agreement,” said the official. “We want to reach a situation where the Conservative and Reform movements willingly forgo performing conversions in Israel.”

Under another element of Melchior’s proposal, which the Conservative and Reform movements have long supported, the nationality clause in Israeli identity cards would be removed. This would essentially mean that the state of Israel would no longer rule on “Who Is a Jew.”

The proposal also seeks to launch a mass campaign to convert non-Jewish immigrants who have arrived under the Law of Return.

However, potential converts would be directed to joint conversion institutes, where Orthodox, Conservative and Reform teachers prepare conversion candidates. The conversions would be performed by Orthodox rabbis.

This element of the solution is the core of the recommendations formulated by the committee headed by Ya’acov Ne’eman, Israel’s former finance minister, which tried to solve the conversion problem under the previous government. Although the non-Orthodox movements accepted the concept in principle, they said it did not solve the problem because the Orthodox rabbinate never agreed to convert graduates of the institute.

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement in Israel, rejected linking the liberal streams’ right to perform conversions to the issue of non-Jewish immigration.

“Of course, we welcome talks about the technical solution which we have advocated for years,” he said, referring to the proposed removal of nationality from identity cards. “But there is no point to eliminating the nationality clause without letting us continue to perform our conversions.

“There are many positive elements to Melchior’s proposal,” he said, pointing out the technical solution and the proposal to increase the number of students at the joint conversion institutes. “But we insist that it is our right to perform conversions in Israel and we cannot agree to suspend our conversions.”

Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, from the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism bloc, said he had not yet fully studied the proposals, but said he supports any package that would get the non-Orthodox movements to stop performing conversions in Israel.

Although Ravitz supports changing the Law of Return, he said he is wary of any plan that could lead to what he calls a conversion assembly line.

“Conversion is a personal decision,” he said. “I don’t believe in turning conversions into a matter of mass production.”

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