Reform Jews Declare First Round Victory in Israeli Conversion Negotiations June 19, 1997
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, declared a "first-round victory" for religious pluralism in Israel at the conclusion of negotiations over the controversial Israeli conversion legislation which has threatened to cause an irrevocable rift between the Jewish State and world Jewry.
"The result of the negotiations was an agreement that we considered to be a significant step forward, and offers hope that a solution may be found," Rabbi Yoffie said in a statement released today. "At the same time, it should be noted that the issue is far from resolved and the Conversion Bill could still be brought forward for a vote later this year," he added.
Rabbi Yoffie said that he is hopeful that a solution is reached, because of the need to heal the growing divisions in the world Jewish community. "The Jewish people are too small to be divided," Rabbi Yoffie said. "We must find ways to come together, to speak to one another, and to work together."
Rabbi Yoffie returned yesterday from Israel where he, Rabbi Simeon Maslin, President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Rabbi Uri Regev, Director of the Israel Religious Action Center; and Rabbi Richard Hirsch, Executive Director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism represented the Reform Movement in a marathon of negotiations. The eight person Reform and Conservative delegation, invited to Israel by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, met with the Prime Minister and government leaders to discuss the crisis created by the Conversion Bill's consideration in the Knesset.
"We went to Israel with two goals," said Yoffie: "to assure that the Conversion Law would not be adopted, and to demand that Reform and Conservative conversions be registered by the Government in the same way as Orthodox conversions."
Of the agreement reached in exchange for the suspension of lawsuits filed by the Reform and Conservative movements with the Supreme Court, Rabbi Yoffie said: "The advantages of this agreement are obvious: We will be formally involved, for the first time, in the process of preparing conversion legislation; we have a commitment from the Prime Minister that this process will be completed and approved by September 5th, and most important, we have a commitment that no recommendation will be put forth that is not approved by us. These are significant achievements, and our friends across Israel's political spectrum urged that we proceed on this basis," he said.
Rabbi Yoffie warned that his Movement will not approve any agreement that does not recognize all Reform and Conservative converts as equal to Orthodox. "We made clear to the Prime Minister and his aides what we can and cannot accept, and they felt that the chances were good that a formulation acceptable to all could be found. They understand the stakes, and demonstrated a sincere desire to find a way to resolve this matter satisfactorily. Therefore, while vigilance is required on our part, we remain hopeful that a solution will be found," said Rabbi Yoffie.
The Conversion Bill would deny recognition to non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel. Reform and Conservative conversions are not now recognized in Israel, but Israel's Supreme Court has indicated in recent decisions that it might order such recognition. In order to forestall this development, the Orthodox parties demanded the passage of the Conversion Bill as the price for entering the governing coalition. Last March, the bill passed the Knesset on its first of three required readings.
While the pending legislation had no direct bearing on the recognition of conversions performed outside of Israel, its implicit de-legitimization of non-Orthodox Judaism enraged world Jewry, as much as 90% of which identifies as non-Orthodox.
"Three months ago, the passage of this bill was considered a certainty." said Rabbi Yoffie. "The fact that so much opposition has arisen in so short a time is due to the extraordinary efforts of the North American Jewish community, which has sent a loud and clear message to Israeli leaders that this bill is an offense and an outrage?.These efforts were unprecedented, and included extensive work by Reform and Conservative synagogues."
Rabbi Yoffie called on North American Jews to continue to lobby Israeli leaders on the importance of reaching an acceptable resolution.