State to Set Up Second Neeman Panel on non-Orthodox Conversions

Reform movement calls panel reviewing implemention of previous conclusions 'foot-dragging tactic.'

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert plans to establish a public committee headed by Profesor Yaakov Neeman to examine the demands of the Reform and Conservative movements to recognize their conversions conducted in Israel under the Law of Return.

Representatives of the Reform movement oppose the new committee, calling it a foot-dragging tactic.

Neeman has already headed a public committee on the issue. Its conclusions led to the establishment of a joint institute of all three streams of Judaism for pre-conversion study.

On Sunday, a nine-member panel of the High Court of Justice, headed by Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch, will hear petitions from individuals who underwent Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel and are seeking recognition as Jews under the Law of Return. The petitions, filed by the Reform movement's legal arm, the Israel Religious Action Center, focus on the Law of Return definition of "Who is a Jew?"

Prior to the state filing its response to the petitions, a large meeting involving officials of the relevant ministries was held on Monday at the Prime Minister's Office. The participants decided that the state's position in the High Court would not differentiate between Orthodox, Reform and Conservative conversions, but between conversions conducted in a state religious court and unrecognized "private" conversions.

However, despite the upcoming High Court hearing, Olmert has decided to establish the public committee.

According to Yochi Gensin of the state prosecution, the committee "will examine implementing the recommendations of the previous Neeman Committee, hear representatives of all three streams of Judaism, and try to create acceptable arrangements regarding the matter at hand."

It is still not clear if the state interpretation of the "matter at hand" is correcting the failures in implementing the previous Neeman recommendations - to set up a state mechanism that would handle the conversion process and replace existing conversion courts.

Government sources agree there were problems with the previous Neeman Committee, established in 1997 by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That committee suggested that the study and conversion processes be separated, and that all conversions be conducted according to Orthodox precepts, while each stream could conduct the study itself. The chief rabbinate rejected the committee's ideas, causing the committee to disband.

Government officials apparently opposed recognizing the non-Orthodox conversion courts, which they accuse of "converting anything that moves," thereby granting civil status to illegal aliens.

However, apparently the Reform and Conservative representatives will not accept the proposal to postpone the High Court proceedings to allow the committee to work. "The Neeman II Committee is the fruit of prosecution desperation that it has no new legal reasons to defend its position on conversion," said IRAC attorney Nicole Maor. "This is a desperate and ridiculous attempt on the part of the state to again delay necessary decisions regarding non-Orthodox conversions."