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June 11, 1998

Mideast

By trying to pass an updated law, Netanyahu's government is once again on a collision course with the non-Orthodox movements

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/mideast_19980612

The government is now trying to pass an updated version of the conversion law, which, it claims, gives consideration to Conservative and Reform Jewry. Yet Rabbi Ehud Bandel, leader of the Israeli Conservative movement, says the new proposal "is merely the old conversion law dressed up in new clothes. If it passes, it will strengthen the Orthodox monopoly on conversion and put a stopper in the effort to introduce religious pluralism in Israel."

Conversion Conflict, Continued

By trying to pass an updated law, Netanyahu's government is once again on a collision course with the non-Orthodox movements

By Larry Derfner, Tel Aviv Correspondent

Just when everybody thought the conversion law crisis had somehow miraculously faded away, it burst back into the limelight. The Netanyahu government is once again on a collision course with the Conservative and Reform movements -- and, by extension, with American Jewry -- over the issue.

The government is now trying to pass an updated version of the conversion law, which, it claims, gives consideration to Conservative and Reform Jewry. Yet Rabbi Ehud Bandel, leader of the Israeli Conservative movement, says the new proposal "is merely the old conversion law dressed up in new clothes. If it passes, it will strengthen the Orthodox monopoly on conversion and put a stopper in the effort to introduce religious pluralism in Israel."

The initial Knesset hearings on the government's proposal are scheduled for June 22.

In brief, what happened was this: After the Conservative and Reform accepted the Neeman Commission compromise on conversion last January but the Orthodox chief rabbinate rejected it, the Conservative movement's legal battle was reactivated. On June 4, the Supreme Court ordered the government to declare its intentions: to let the court decide the matter (which could well result in recognition for Conservative and Reform conversions), or to take the matter out of the court's hands by trying to pass a law in the Knesset.

The government, under pressure from the religious parties, announced that it would go for the law.

But the Netanyahu government sees it cannot pass the original conversion law, because three of its coalition partners -- the right-wing Tsomet (Crossroads), centrist The Third Way, and Natan Sharansky's Yisrael Ba'Aliyah -- oppose it. So the government has come up with a new rendering of the conversion law, which, it claims, includes the conciliatory Neeman recommendations.

Under the new proposal, the chief rabbinate would retain sole conversion authority (which it has always enjoyed, but by agreement, which is open to court challenge, and never by law, which is final). However, a new "Jewish studies institute," set up by the Jewish Agency and administered jointly by the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, would be open to conversion candidates.

Nothing in the proposed new law, however, requires the chief rabbinate to convert candidates who learn Judaism at this institute, and here is where the Conservative and Reform balk.

They note that the chief rabbinate rejected the Neeman recommendations precisely because they were unwilling to have anything to do with an institute where Conservative and Reform authorities could teach Judaism. The law now being proposed by the government leaves it up to the rabbinate whether to convert candidates who pass through the institute -- and the rabbinate has already made its position absolutely clear.

Yet Finance Minister Yaakov Neeman is blaming the Conservative and Reform movements for rejecting the compromise attempts and throwing the issue back onto the confrontation path. Bandel, who sat on the Neeman Commission, and other Conservative and Reform leaders accuse Neeman of deliberately misrepresenting their position.

And now, with the government selling its new proposal as having something for everyone -- the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform -- opponents are having a hard time fighting it in the Knesset.

"It's a difficult informational challenge because people ask us, 'How can you oppose a law that includes the Neeman recommendations, when you already accepted the Neeman recommendations?' And we have to explain to them that the Neeman recommendations called for the chief rabbinate's agreement, while this law does no such thing. The chief rabbis cannot be forced to recognize us; they can only do so voluntarily. You can't legislate goodwill.

"I'm very scared. I'm scared that the government is going to succeed in deceiving the Knesset and the Israeli public and the Jewish Diaspora."

Bandel said that he, too, would prefer that the dispute be settled out of court and out of the Knesset -- by agreement between the two sides. But with the failure of the Neeman commission, he says, a new way must be found.

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