The conversion issue has again surfaced in Israel, reigniting bitter animosities that were shelved during failed efforts to resolve the conflict. And unlike before, the non-Orthodox are blaming the Israeli government for the crisis.
“We are disturbed by the way the government of Israel has gone out of its way to attack the [Conservative] Masorti movement,” Rabbi Reuven Hammer told Israel’s consul general in New York, Shmuel Sisso, during a Tuesday meeting here. “It has put all of the blame on us for what has happened, instead of putting the blame on the chief rabbinate and the Orthodox parties.”
He was referring to the Israeli government’s decision to support legislation that would codify the two principal recommendations of a commission chaired by Finance Minister Yaacov Neeman: the creation by all three branches of Judaism of institutes that would teach potential converts about the religion, and the right of the chief rabbinate to conduct conversions.
Although both the Conservative and Reform movements agreed to support these proposals when they were promulgated by the Neeman Commission, the conversion institute was strongly denounced by the chief rabbinate and the proposals were never signed.
At a meeting of the executive council of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, Sisso sought to defuse the rabbis’ distress by saying his government “is trying to find a solution on practical grounds. We don’t want this conflict.”
Senior government officials said the only reason the government is supporting new conversion legislation is because the Conservative and Reform movements have returned to the courts to compel the government to recognize conversions they perform in Israel. The legislation will be pursued if the court rules in favor of the two movements.
In court papers last week, Israel’s minister of interior, Eli Suissa, wrote that his government was “constantly and tirelessly working to find a peaceful solution. … We seek to avoid the sharp internal controversy we are witnessing today and have witnessed in the past. In our opinion, not every conflict should be resolved in court.”
In his remarks to the rabbis, Sisso pointed out that although the Neeman Commission proposals were never adopted, the government is moving forward to implement them anyway. He said a site has been found in Beersheva for one of the first three institutes, that a board of directors has been formed, and that classes are expected to begin in October.
An Israeli official said government money for the institute has already been allocated and that the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox branches each submitted a curriculum that was remarkably similar.
The executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, noted during Tuesday’s meeting that the leadership of his lay organization just concluded a meeting and that “they feel just as passionately and just as strongly” as the rabbis.
“To blame the Masorti and Conservative movements for not being patient is a terrible misstatement of the facts and reality,” he said. “The idea of passing the Neeman Commission proposals into law could have been of value if the chief rabbinate had not been so vituperative. They said, ‘I won’t sit with them [Conservative and Reform rabbis].’”
Rabbi Amy Levin of Jerusalem stressed that the Conservative rabbinate is “not looking for the approval of the chief rabbinate. … We don’t need Orthodox rabbis to tell us what we do is acceptable or not.”
The only reason the government is supporting the proposed bill, suggested Rabbi Hammer, is “to save its coalition by giving the religious parties what they want. … The chief rabbinate is being rewarded for destroying a plan that might have promoted Jewish unity, and we are to be punished for accepting it.”
To cool passions, Sisso said he suggested last week’s conference call between Neeman and Jewish federation leaders. Among the participants was the executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York, Stephen Solender. He said later that he agreed with the government that the Reform and Conservative movements should have postponed their court cases to give the institutes a chance to work.
“At this point, any other alternative could cause the progress being achieved to stop, and that would be most unfortunate,” he said.
Asked if he had conveyed that message to the non-Orthodox leadership, Solender replied: “They know how I feel.”
The meeting with Conservative rabbis came one day after Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, met with Sisso to complain about his office’s distribution of a translation of the government’s court arguments.
“If you want to inform, why not send out both arguments?” Rabbi Hirsch said he asked Sisso. “If you want to do propaganda, you are engaging in a very dangerous game because the best thing the Israeli diplomatic corps has going for it is its reputation for clarity, honesty and integrity. If it develops a reputation as nothing more than a mouthpiece for narrow political interests, it will bring about severe harm to itself.”
Sisso said his office was simply responding to requests for copies of the government’s position, nothing more.“We are trying to reduce the tensions and calm the anger,” he insisted.