Liberal Movements in Israel Protest Rejection by Jerusalem City Council.
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Liberal Movements in Israel Protest Rejection by Jerusalem City Council.

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The reform and Conservative movements here will turn once again to the Supreme Court to protest the latest rejection by the Jerusalem City Council of their candidates to the local religious council.

The move reflects the escalating struggle between champions of religious pluralism and guardians of the status quo, which gives a virtual monopoly over religious matters in Israel to the Orthodox establishment.

At a late-night meeting last week, the City Council voted down a series of Reform and Conservative rabbis proposed as candidates for the local religious council by the left-wing Meretz bloc.

The council, which dispenses basic religious services to all Jewish citizens and oversees an estimated $10 million annual budged, is supposed to represent all political parties serving on the city council. The rules entitle Meretz to two seats on Jerusalem’s religious council.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert apparently instructed council members not to discuss the candidates before the vote. Afterward he claimed the Meretz nominees were rejected on the basis of their individual qualifications and not their religious affiliations, a city spokeswoman said this week.

But Conservative Rabbi Ehud Bandel, one of the candidates, pointed out that Meretz nominated three pairs of rabbis, all of whom were summarily rejected.

It was obvious they were turned down because of their non-Orthodox religious affiliation, and therefore council had acted in contempt of court, Bandel said.

The Supreme Court ruled last January that candidates for local religious councils could not be barred from serving because of their non-Orthodox affiliation. The ruling was in response to a petition filed five year earlier.

The Orthodox political religious establishment reacted angrily to the decision as an unwarranted intrusion by the supreme Court in religious affairs.

Knesset member Avraham Ravitz of the fervently Orthodox Degel HaTorah party said in an interview that the Reform movement is not a Jewish religious movement and does not belong on a religious council that oversees religious matters.

Two months ago, Ravitz and other politicians from the Orthodox parties took their protest to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who promised to investigate the matter and try to find a solution to the problem.

City councils are required to form the religious bodies within six months after municipal elections. But Olmert, a member of Likud who is widely seen as politically boxed in by the Orthodox members of his city council, failed to adhere to the timetable.

This failure prompted a Supreme Court petition filed in protest last august by the Reform and Conservative movements.

The high court had scheduled a hearing on the petition for early next year, but Olmert apparently preferred not to wait and last week convened the city council meeting to act on nominations to the religious council. For his part, Olmert abstained from the votes in question, his spokeswomen emphasized.

The petition by Bandel and his colleagues will be filed in the coming days and “we expect the Supreme Court once again to say the (City Council) vote was illegal,” he said. “I just hope we won’t have to wait another five years.”

The religious councils “are not the once to rule on halachic matters,” said Bandel, referring to matters of religious law. “They are administrative bodies, and we just want to ensure the monies are distributed on a fair basis.

“It is a test case (for) Israeli democracy and the status of the Supreme Court,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on a controversial agreement between the fervently Orthodox Shas party and the Labor Party that, in effect, would nullify any Supreme Court ruling that undermines the religious status quo.

Shas has made the agreement a condition of its return to the governing coalition, while the Supreme Court’s Deputy President Aharon Barak reportedly has termed it “an agreement to circumvent democracy.”

Last January’s ruling on the religious councils is a prime example of what the Orthodox establishment maintains is an unacceptable attack on the status quo.

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