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News Analysis: Showdown or Compromise? Time Will Tell for Ne’eman Effort

January 20, 1998
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Showdown or compromise? Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews in Israel are preparing for both as a committee working to find a solution to the conversion bill crisis closes in on its deadline.

Tensions mounted as the committee, headed by Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman, was expected to finish its work by Jan. 25 — one week ahead of schedule.

Members said the early completion was a result of Ne’eman’s planned trip to the United States to participate in an Israel Bonds event next week.

Much is at stake as the clock ticks for the committee, which was established last year to help avert a crisis that threatened to widen the gap between American Jews and Israel.

The issue has already sparked widespread resentment among American Jews, the overwhelming majority of whom identify with the Reform and Conservative movements’ push for recognition in Israel.

For their part, American Orthodox Jews, like their Israeli counterparts, appear divided over the issue, with some opposed to any change in the status quo, which gives Israel’s Chief Rabbinate exclusive control over personal status issues such as marriage, conversion and burial.

Others have expressed the hope that the Ne’eman Committee, which includes representatives of the major streams of Judaism, would succeed in reaching a compromise resolution.

But even as a compromise began to take shape, prominent Orthodox Israeli rabbis unleashed a fresh barrage of anti-Reform and Conservative rhetoric.

Reform leaders, meanwhile, said they do not trust the rabbinate to carry out the committee’s conclusions and demanded guarantees. Their Orthodox counterparts accused them of trying to torpedo a compromise.

And in the Knesset, Orthodox parties, anticipating the committee’s failure, prepared to push through the very bill — one that would enshrine in law the Orthodox monopoly over conversions in Israel — that ignited the controversy in the first place.

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center and a Ne’eman Committee member, said he hoped that enough coalition members would keep the bill from passing if it came to a vote.

If not, he warned, the bill would spark outraged Israelis into a full-scale war against religious coercion.

“This will be fueled in part by growing support from Diaspora Jewry, which will translate its frustration into anger,” he said, predicting a backlash of political, charitable and even economic support for Israel by American Jews.

Even as both sides are preparing for a renewed battle, the main elements of a compromise are in place, prompting speculation that the tough positions are last-minute bargaining tactics.

Committee members outlined two main components of the compromise package:

A joint, interdenominational educational conversion program, under the auspices of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which would be established as an accepted alternative for potential converts who seek a non-Orthodox alternative.

The formal conversion process would be conducted by Orthodox religious courts established by the Chief Rabbinate.

Several key elements to the agreement, however, are still being disputed.

One of the key sticking points, according to several parties involved, is whether the Reform and Conservative will agree, as the Orthodox are demanding, to stop performing their own conversions once a compromise takes effect.

While the Conservative movement appears likely to agree to that demand, the Reform movement has not accepted it.

While many had hoped that a compromise allowing for the official recognition of weddings officiated by non-Orthodox rabbis would be part of the conversion compromise, that is not going to happen, according to Alex Lubotzky, a Knesset member from the centrist Third Way party who has been a driving force in the campaign for a compromise.

Regev said he accepted the basic formula of the compromise — a joint conversion school coupled with Orthodox conversion.

However since the rabbinate was not represented on the committee — and has refused regular contact with the Reform and Conservative movements — Regev said he wanted a firm commitment from Israel’s chief rabbis that they would abide by the decisions.

“As far as we’re concerned, the package and even the two elements of conversion can only be agreed to by us if we know for a fact, explicitly, that the rabbinate is going to deliver the goods,” he said.

“We are not interested in going back to a situation whereby all we have is a piece of paper and a claim that we simply didn’t understand what the rabbinate was willing to do.”

But Rabbi Simcha Meron, an Orthodox member of the committee, accused Regev of creating an excuse for not signing the conclusions, in an attempt to blame the Orthodox if the committee fails in its mission.

“They know that the committee is working with the knowledge of the rabbinate,” Meron said.

He said the chief rabbis were likely to meet the committee before it submits its findings to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

However after statements made last week by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, it is difficult to imagine the Chief Rabbinate signing on to the package.

In a meeting with a mission of 75 Orthodox and fervently Orthodox rabbis from the United States who came to lobby for the conversion legislation, Lau said Reform and Conservative rabbis did not deserve recognition.

If you don’t accept the oral law, if you don’t even agree upon the fundamentals, that the Torah was given in Sinai,” he said, referring to liberal rabbis directly, “how can you demand that the Jewish people accept you as rabbis, as spiritual leaders, as religious figures?”

Meeting the same group, called Am Echad, or One Nation, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the Sephardi Orthodox Shas Party, called Reform rabbis “priests” and charged them with bribing politicians to win support for their cause.

For his part, Shas Knesset member Shlomo Benizri said he did not expect the chief rabbis to accept the compromise and was preparing to revive the conversion legislation.

“The committee’s compromise proposals will explode at some point,” he said. “We don’t want to take down the government, but if need be, we will go to legislation. If the government must fall, it will fall.”

Meanwhile, Yuli Edelstein, minister of absorption and member of the Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party, which has a largely Russian immigrant constituency, said his party would not bow to Shas’ pressure.

“If we are convinced there is a reasonable solution, but the coalition pushes for immediate legislation, we won’t support the government,” he said.

Meanwhile, other moderate forces were at work behind the scenes to try to ensure that a successful compromise is reached.

Lubotzky said he believed an agreement was imminent.

To help ensure success, Lubotzky convened a group of 130 moderate Orthodox rabbis and lay leaders at the Knesset on Monday to try to influence Orthodox Israelis to accept the conclusions of the committee.

In New York, Shvil Hazahav, a group of Orthodox rabbis and lay leaders, issued a statement endorsing the Knesset gathering and the Ne’eman Committee.

“The very future of the unity of klal Yisrael (the Jewish people) may very well rest on the outcome of these deliberations,” said Dr. Steven Eidman, a member of the group’s executive committee.

For his part, Regev believes that such Orthodox efforts could be the key to averting an all-out religious war if the Ne’eman Committee fails.

“There is a quiet dialogue going on between us and some of the younger generation of [Orthodox] rabbis,” he said. “Ultimately, they, too, realize the need for a change on policies of religion and state in Israel.”

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