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Latest Pluralism Imbroglio Focuses on New IDF Directive

Reports of new threats of a Reform boycott of Diaspora fund-raising efforts for Israel are unfounded, said the leader of the Reform movement in the United States.

The Israeli media widely reported last week that the head of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, Rabbi Uri Regev, threatened such a boycott to protest an Israeli army ban on visits to synagogues and other institutions of the Reform movement.

But Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said Regev’s reported comments were “misquotations,” which nevertheless reflected “anger and frustration” by Regev at the prospect of such a policy.

Yoffie said his preliminary inquiries had shown that there is no such official army policy.

“If there were to be such a policy, we would be distressed and respond in an appropriate way. But we are not inclined to make threats,” Yoffie said.

The controversy comes amid growing protest by Reform and Conservative Diaspora Jews over official Orthodox domination of Israeli religious life.

It also comes as the fervently Orthodox members of Israel’s governing coalition continue their efforts to prevent an erosion of the Orthodox religious monopoly.

The non-Orthodox protest here has included some threats to bypass the central Jewish fund-raising campaign, which provides funds to Israel, and to give directly to Reform and Conservative institutions in Israel.

The campaign is run annually by the United Jewish Appeal and local federations.

Yoffie himself has warned that if the mainstream Jewish establishment did not champion the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel, it would alienate many in the grass roots.

In a clear sign of concern, the UJA recently circulated a news release reiterating that all four major streams of Judaism support the philanthropic enterprise.

“It is important for every Conservative and Reform Jew to support klal Yisrael by making a meaningful gift to the 1997 federation/UJA campaign,” said the news release. It was quoting from a letter written by Conservative and Reform leaders, including Yoffie. “Their causes are ones that need and deserve our support.”

The latest imbroglio started when an Orthodox Knesset member inquired about a trip taken by soldiers to a Reform center in Haifa.

Knesset member Moshe Gafni, of the United Torah Judaism party, asked the military whether soldiers are required to participate in educational trips to Reform institutions, churches and mosques.

The Israel Defense Force chief of staff responded by issuing a new directive, Gideon Mark, a spokesman at the Israeli Consulate in New York, reported after talking with the IDF spokesman’s office in Israel.

It said army units should not include in their educational programs visits to sites that cause any soldier to feel uncomfortable, Mark said.

Despite news reports to the contrary, the directive “never said anything about synagogues, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or otherwise,” Mark said.

According to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Regev responded to the directive, saying that “if it turns out that the policy is directed against Reform Jewry, we will view it as a declaration by the state that it views our sites as ritually impure.”

“We are wondering whether Israel is prepared for the possibility that, in parallel, the gates of the Reform community in the U.S. will be closed to their representatives it uses to gather financial and political support.”

Meanwhile, the Orthodox members of the Israeli government coalition are continuing to push their own agenda.

They threatened a revolt against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if the government did not take immediate action to further legislation that would reinforce exclusive Orthodox control over conversions performed in Israel.

In New York on Wednesday, Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky said his party, Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, is committed to keeping the legislation as narrow as possible.

The Orthodox coalition members are seeking a broader version that also, in effect, would not recognize the conversions of Israelis who go abroad for non- Orthodox conversions and then return.

Netanyahu repeatedly has pledged not to allow any change in the current recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions of non-Israelis performed outside Israel.

In another initiative, a Knesset member from the fervently Orthodox Shas party has submitted a bill seeking to change the status of the plaza in front of the Western Wall from a national to a religious site.

That would transfer authority for the site to the Ministry of Religion and apparently would render Orthodox practice the only legitimate practice there.

For his part, Sharansky, who is head of a ministerial committee on Diaspora affairs, downplayed the significance of the initiative and seemed to suggest that the transfer was unlikely to occur.

But any such prospect prompted an angry letter on the Internet by the International Committee for Women of the Wall, which has been fighting for years in the Israeli Supreme Court for the right to pray at the site as they see fit.

The court recently ordered the government to show “just cause” why women who wish to pray at the Wall could not do so as a group. The Women of the Wall fear that the legislative initiative is an attempt to pre-empt a favorable court ruling.

“Not only does this proposed unilateral change once again show the contempt and disregard of the bill’s proponents for all opinions other than their own, it is also another slap in the face of Diaspora Jewry, who have for centuries maintained their stake in free access to the holy sites in Israel.”

“The Kotel is not a synagogue,” the women wrote, using the Hebrew reference to the Wall. “It is a national holy site for all the Jewish people.”

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