Furor Erupts over Rabbi’s Letter Claiming Religious Discrimination

Uri Regev, a civil rights activist and Reform rabbi, has come under fire for a letter he wrote a year ago to a Canadian lawyer attesting to instances of alleged religious discrimination against intermarried couples in Israel.

The letter was solicited from Regev to help determine whether a particular family of immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union could be granted refugee status in Canada on grounds of religious discrimination in Israel.

The incident follows headline news last summer that hundreds of Israeli immigrants from the former soviet Union had been admitted to Canada as refugees based on claims of religious discrimination here.

Canadian government officials have since responded to Israeli diplomatic protests by claiming powerlessness. They say the board governing immigration and refugees is an independent body.

In his letter of November 1993 on behalf of the Grosman family, who had applied for refugee status in Canada, Regev concluded, “the situation of the family in Israel would be truly undesirable and demeaning and would deprive them of basic civil and human rights.”

The husband, Yuri Grosman, is Jewish and his wife, Olga, is not.

Regev is the director of the Religious Action Center is Israel, which, among other things, runs advocacy centers throughout the country for new immigrants.

He is also an attorney and key legal combatant, working through the High Court of Justice, against the monopoly of the Orthodox establishment over religious affairs in Israel.

The letter has laid Regev open to charges that he is hurting Israel, Zionism and the Reform movement.

The furor arose last week after the Israeli daily Ha’aretz obtained a copy of Regev’s letter with the names of the individual family deleted. The letter was apparently being used as a form letter by other Israeli immigrants attempting to gain refugee status in Canada.

Regev, who has been aware for several months that the letter was being reissued without his authorization, said he had no idea who made such “unauthorized and improper use” of his letter.

He protested its misuse in a letter to the Grosmans’ attorney in Canada several months ago. In the letter, he protested “in the strongest of terms all unauthorized use of these modified letters” and demanded their “immediate cessation.”

Despite his concern that the letter was being misused, Regev said he stands by the original letter, which was written Nov. 15, 1993, to an Ontario lawyer in response to an inquire about possible religious discrimination in Israel against the Grosmans and their daughter, Alissa.

In that letter, Regev wrote that “harassment” against mixed marriages, “especially in particularly Jewish neighborhoods, is quite prevalent.”

“Beyond the fact of intolerance,” he wrote, those in mixed marriages and their children face “serious civil rights problems.”

“The difficulties for the family would follow them from birth to death,” he said. Such difficulties would range from the refusal of the Orthodox “to perform a ritual circumcision on a son,” to the inability of the children to marry Jews in Israel, to the impossibility of burial together “because the cemeteries are run by Orthodox authorities who do not permit burial of a non- Jew next to a Jew and there is no civil burial alternative.”

Regev said that in answering other periodic inquiries from research coordinators for the Canadian refugee boar he was careful to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate claims of religious discrimination.

“Several times I was very clear in countering arguments that had no basis in fact” which claimed religious discrimination, Regev said in an interview in his office last week. “I was quick to set the record straight.

“On the other hand, when asked about issues confronting mixed families, I was no reason and no way in which I could close my eyes, my ears, my mouth, and refuse, in a professional way, to clarify what the facts were,” he said.

“I limited my response to those areas where, unfortunately, the problem is real and acute,” he said. “My letter did not recommend that people leave Israel or be given refugee status.”

Despite Regev’s distinctions, he has come under attack from government officials as well as from officials in his own Reform movement.

Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin said in an interview in Ha’aretz that he regretted that Regev had lent his stamp of authority to what he termed “an insane situation. I don’t believe there’s a person in Israel who deserves to be a refugee.”

Rabbi Richard Hirsch, head of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the international umbrella of the Reform movement, said Regev’s actions were aimed against “Zionism, the state, Judaism and the Reform movement,” according to Ha’aretz.

Hirsch took pains to dissociate the Reform movement from Regev’s statements.

“There is a whole debate about religion and state in Israel,” said Yehiel Leket, acting chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which is responsible for bringing immigrants to Israel and also helps fund the Religions Action Center.

“Many secular and non-Orthodox groups feel uncomfortable with the statues quo, and there is political struggle to change it,” he said, referring to an arrangement which gives the Orthodox establishment exclusive authority over religious matters.

“But it is ridiculous to define someone as a refugee because of this,” said Leket, who has protested to Canadian officials the practice of granting refugee statues to Israeli immigrants.

Leket has also appealed to Canadian Jewish leaders, asking them to intervene with their government. He told them the practice of admitting Israelis as refuges “seriously damages the international image of Israel” and must stop.

“Olim coming to Israel under the Law of Return cannot be considered refugees in another country because they have full rights in Israel in under Israel law and get special assistance for their absorption,” he said.

Not everyone had harsh words for Regev. One of his defenders is Hebrew University Professor Hillel Shuval, chairman of Hemdat, the Council for Freedom of Science, Culture and Religion.

“The facts presented by Rabbi Regev concerning serious deprivation of civil rights to couple if mixed marriages in Israel are all basically correct and have been publicized before on numerous occasions in the press in Israel and abroad,” he said.

Shuval said that people like Regev, who are fighting to end the Orthodox monopoly, are “no less patriotic and Zionist” than those “who pretend serious civil rights problems do not exist.”

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