American Jews in the forefront of the fight for religious pluralism in Israel are expressing alarm over the agreements signed by Prime Minister-elect benjamin Netanyahu and his Orthodox coalition partners.
“We are frightened” by “commitments the government is prepared to make to delegitimize non-Orthodox religious Jewry,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
United Synagogue is part of the recently formed North American Coalition to Advance Religious Pluralism in Israel.
Coalition members fear that these agreements will strain relations between non- Orthodox Jewry around the world and the Jewish state.
They have requested a meeting with the next prime minister this week in Jerusalem to express their concern.
Among the agreements reportedly reached between Netanyahu and two religious parties – Shas and National Religious Party – is one that would close the door opened by the Supreme Court last year to non-Orthodox conversions in Israel.
The government also reportedly has made a deal to support legislation that would bar Reform and Conservative representatives from serving on religious councils, which would undermine another recent Supreme Court ruling.
Speaking to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations last week, Zalman Shoval, a Likud Party official, pledged that there would be no change in the “status quo” governing religious matters.
But such a pledge means different things to different people. To some, it means protecting advances made by non-Orthodox movements through the Supreme Court to break the monopoly of the Orthodox over religious life in Israel.
To others, it means preserving continuing Orthodox hegemony over religious affairs, from marriage to burial, that has existed since the state’s founding, despite recent court rulings challenging such hegemony.
Shoval said he made the pledge on behalf of the new prime minister.
But since then, Netanyahu concluded deals with the religious parties to form a new government, speaking renewed concern in many Jewish circles.
“Words of reassurance that there will be no movement backward” on the status quo “are meaningless,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
“What we’ve seen to date indicates exactly the opposite.”
The two reversals would “constitute a tremendous blow and affront to our movement and our membership,” Yoffie added.
Epstein called it “very problematic” for Israel to ban non-Orthodox conversions because it delegitimizes non-Orthodox rabbis.
He said a meeting with Netanyahu, “who wants to build relationships with the Diaspora,” would help the new Israeli leader “understand the strong feelings” of Conservative and Reform Jews, who represent 85 percent to 90 percent of affiliated Jews in the United States.
The fund-raising establishment also raised its voice.
Leaders of the United Israel Appeal, the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations have proposed that a resolution calling for the legal protection of pluralism be considered next week at the annual assembly of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
The Jewish Agency is the primary recipient in Israel of funds raised by these entities.
The resolution calls on the government to refrain from passing or amending laws on conversion or other issues “in a way which may estrange major parts of the Jewish people from their linkage to the nation, to be culture and the Jewish state.”
Orthodox Jewish groups here, meanwhile, have welcomed the prospect of reversing the gains made by non-Orthodox movements in Israel, saying that such moves prevent the erosion of authentic Judaism.