Any arrangement can initially sound pragmatic and progressive if it is presented as a compromise. That was aptly demonstrated in the case of last week's agreement in principle to allow some civil marriages in Israel - which was hailed in some quarters as a long-awaited, inherently liberalizing breakthrough. In return for the ostensible new openness on its part, all matters pertaining to conversion are to be subordinated to the Chief Rabbinate's auspices. Yet what was presented as an enlightened step is actually nothing of the sort. If anything, it's a distressing regression. The deal between Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, set to produce binding Knesset legislation, is an example of pretty window-dressing obscuring shoddy merchandise. To permit civil marriage for two individuals who in any case aren't considered sufficiently Jewish to come under rabbinical jurisdiction (circumstances which cover merely 3%-5% of cases in Israel) is no real concession. Such individuals could anyhow draw up a legal civil union contract or opt for the more popular quick hop to nearby Cyprus and a civil marriage there. (The latter is a choice which more and more Jews make as well to avoid rabbinical imperiousness.) The extent of the Rabbinate's purported goodwill shrinks yet further in view of the bitter irony that, under the terms and limitations of the new arrangement, people are essentially being asked to prove their non-Jewishness in order to qualify for the civil marriage dispensation. The bottom line, though, of course, is that the cases of couples comprising two questionably-Jewish (or non-Jewish) individuals were never the real problem. The difficulty revolves around the far more prevalent hardship of a couple where one partner is Jewish (and therefore subject to rabbinate rulings) and the other may not be Jewish. The partner whose Jewishness the rabbinate will not stipulate is often a young person raised as an Israeli and most naturally seeks to assimilate within the Jewish majority. That's precisely the sort of person that the Jewish people should want to include, and that the Rabbinate now seeks to spurn. Not only can this person not marry a Jewish partner in Israel, but that person also cannot formally become Jewish because the Rabbinate makes the entire process so difficult and prolonged as to put off most natural conversion candidates. Thus the Rabbinate alienates those who have cast their lot with the Jewish people and often even risked their lives, in IDF uniform, in the defense of the Jewish state. If the Rabbinate is aiming to sabotage the future of the Jewish people and perpetuate the existence in Israel of a sub-class of semi-Jews (currently estimated at 300,000), then it should continue in its present course. But it should wish to include in the dwindling Jewish collective the offspring of Jewish progenitors who, almost miraculously, have rejoined the Jewish fold after decades of Communist oppression. To act as the proposed new legislation would mandate, and place the Rabbinate in charge of all conversions in Israel, is tantamount to announcing that there will be next to no conversions here. As is, the number of conversions is abysmally low, owing in most instances to rabbinical obstructionism. Those who will, despite all the difficulties heaped in their way, still persevere in their desire to convert might have to do so abroad. The Rabbinate's influence would then diminish rather than increase. It is critical to stress that there is no need for the Rabbinate to breach halachic parameters. All that's needed is genuine responsiveness in the true Jewish spirit for the greater Jewish good. Anti-conversionary attitudes may have made sense during centuries of exile, when non-Jewish governments imposed death sentences against Jews for attempting conversions. Such attitudes did not exist in ancient Israel, when the Jewish population expanded greatly due to a welcoming approach to newcomers. It is wrongheaded and destructive that the exilic approach persists in the reborn Jewish state, at a time when it cannot be justified and obviously exacerbates the demographic threat to the Jewish future.