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Religious bill divides Israeli Jews

Leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism in Israel said Monday that they would press ahead with legal action, renewing a confrontation with the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate over who is a Jew under religious law.

The issue has resonance for Jews worldwide, most of whom are not Orthodox, and has threatened to open a rift between Jews in Israel and abroad.

The struggle focuses on the right of rabbis in Israel to perform conversions, an Orthodox monopoly that is being challenged by the Conservative and Reform movements.

On Monday, efforts to mediate a compromise were thrown into crisis when Reform and Conservative leaders rejected a government request to postpone legal moves to gain recognition of conversions their rabbis perform.

In response, Orthodox parties in Israel's governing coalition said that they would move immediately to pass legislation confirming the sole authority of Orthodox rabbis to perform conversions in Israel and to limit membership in religious councils to Orthodox Jews. The legislation would codify existing practice.

Leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements, which have fewer than 30,000 adherents in Israel, warned that if the bill passed, it would send a strong symbolic message to the overwhelming majority of Jews in the world and could erode their support for Israel.

"We hope that recent events will teach policymakers in the Israeli coalition and opposition that there must be no playing with fire by trying to legislate a law that has only one meaning: the delegitimization of the major movements of the Jewish people," said Rabbi Uri Regev, executive director of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, who led an American Reform delegation, said passage would send a message to Jews of the world that "we, the Jewish state, recognize two classes of Jews: first class Jews are the Orthodox; second class _ 90 percent of world Jewry are second class, and that's a devastating message."

But the two chief rabbis of Israel say that they cannot recognize non-Orthodox rituals, particularly those of the Reform movement, which they describe as a travesty of Judaism. They contend that non-Orthodox conversions do not meet the requirements of Jewish law.

Both parties to the dispute had agreed to suspend action for the duration of the government committee's work. The committee, including Orthodox, Conservative and Reform representatives, was formed in June and was supposed to have submitted its recommendations in August.

David Bar-Illan, an adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau, said: "With all due respect to the Reform and Conservative movements, I can't see anything but a political ax to grind here _ to embarrass if not to actually bring down the government, to help the opposition bring down the government."

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, a leader of the Conservative movement in Israel, called the accusations "paranoid and untrue."

On Monday, Netanyahu also had to contend with a parliament that opened its winter term with a renewed barrage of criticism of his policies that erupted into a shouting match.

The gathering, the first in more than three months, reflected the hard feelings pent up by the opposition Labor Party on several fronts, including the paralysis in peace talks, setbacks in southern Lebanon and a bungled hit in Jordan by Israeli intelligence agents.

Shouting above the cries of the opposition, Netanyahu said he would not allow the creation of a Palestinian state and he would build more Israeli settlements.

Opposition leader Ehud Barak responded with a ferocious attack on Netanyahu, who listened red-faced, as Barak portrayed him as inexperienced and incompetent. Barak also accused Netanyahu of dragging Israel into "unnecessary war" with the Arabs.

When Netanyahu explained that his policies were aimed at fighting terrorism, Labor's Haim Ramon shouted "What about (Ahmed) Yassin?" _ a reference to the Hamas founder recently freed by Israel in return for two Israeli agents caught in a botched assassination attempt on another Hamas leader in Jordan.

"Don't preach to me!" Netanyahu yelled. Netanyahu also held out little prospect that he would moderate his position on the Golan Heights, land Syria wants returned in exchange for peace. "We see the Golan as territory that is essential to the state of Israel," he said.

"There is nothing easy in what we are trying to do," he said. "Reality is not easy. This is a difficult area, not Disneyland."

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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