Israeli Political Leaders Urged Not to ‘concede’ Religious Pluralism

A broad coalition of liberal Jewish organizations is appealing to both Labor Party leader Shimon Peres and Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu not to make any concessions to the Orthodox political parties that could damage the cause of religious pluralism in the Jewish state.

The groups say they are concerned that religious pluralism issues will be sacrifices as political leaders work to forge coalitions with Orthodox political parties to muster a Knesset majority in the aftermath of the May 29 elections.

The groups, coming together under the newly formed North American Coalition to Advance Religious Pluralism in Israel, are sending the candidates for prime minister an open letter urging them not to “further erode the protection of civil rights and religious freedom” in Israel.

Members of the coalition include the American Jewish Congress, the New Israel Fund, the World Union of Progressive Judaism as well as all the central organizations representing Reform and Conservative Jews and the Federation of Reconstructionist Synagogues and Havurot.

The urging comes in the wake of a series of recent Israeli Supreme court decisions that have begun to erode the Orthodox monopoly on issues of religious status in the Jewish state.

Those decisions have led the liberal religious movements to feel hopeful that they might attain official recognition in Israel.

At the same time, most of the court decisions have not been implemented and could be nullified by political deals made with the Orthodox.

The concerns were exacerbated when even sympathetic Labor Party officials recently made it clear that issues of religious pluralism are secondary to concerns about national security.

Orthodox leaders are determined to maintain the status quo that has existed since the founding of the state and gives the Orthodox rabbinate control over government-sanctioned marriages and divorces and over supervision of religious institutions.

It is that status quo, the Orthodox say, which has prevented Diaspora ills such as intermarriage from gaining a foothold in the Jewish state.

In a draft of the letter, the coalition warns: “To agree to further concessions would cast a longer shadow over Israel’s democratic character, create a crisis with world Jewry at precisely the moment when both of you have made Israel- Diaspora relations a priority, and weaken opportunities for Israelis to deepen their Jewish identities.”

“We cannot emphasize enough the damage we fear may result from making political concessions in coalition negotiations which would perpetuate and even exacerbate these denials of religious rights and opportunities for our people in Israel,” reads the letter.

The closing line of the draft reads, “We cannot keep silent.”

The coalition is “trying to make as firm a statement as one can and to mitigate any damage that will be done” by the political wrangling, said Phil Baum, executive director of the AJCongress.

When asked whether the language of the letter was drafted to intimate that if the cause of religious pluralism is discarded in the course of the political negotiations, it would threaten to rupture the relationship between Israel and liberal Diaspora Jewry, Baum said no.

“We will not break off with the people of Israel on this issue,” Baum said. “We don’t believe it will be a rupture of our relationship, but we think it’s important that our views on this issue be heard and understood.”

Recent Israeli Supreme Court decisions include one early last autumn that mandates inclusion of non-Orthodox representatives on the religious councils of each city, which control everything from kashrut certification to mikvahs.

Several of the country’s religious councils, including Jerusalem’s, have refused to reconvene rather than permit non-Orthodox representatives to participate. As a result, no religious councils now include Reform or Conservative representatives.

The court also issued a decision last November that leaned toward recognizing Reform conversions but ordered the Knesset to decide the matter definitively through legislation.

The Knesset, in recess prior to the national election, has not taken up the issue.

And last autumn, for the first time, the Ministry of Education began distributing funds to develop curricula in the public schools to teach about non-Orthodox views of Judaism.

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