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Netanyahu appeals for peace among Jews on religious issues

JERUSALEM, June 29 (JTA) — Before Israel can make peace with its Arab neighbors, the Jewish people must make peace with one another. That was the message Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conveyed Sunday to the Jewish Agency for Israel Assembly. “For there to be peace between Jews and Arabs, between Israelis and Palestinians, first there must be at peace at home,” said Netanyahu, referring to the growing rift between religious and secular Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. “The key is to have peace among the Jews. We must have unity to meet our goals.” While stressing that Israelis must learn to be more tolerant of Jews abroad, the prime minister rejected the notion of American-style pluralism as a model for Israeli society. “The request has been made to turn Israel into the United States. It’s not the United States.” Unlike the United States, which long ago defined the boundaries between religion and state, the religion-state relationship in Israel is still evolving, Netanyahu said. Netanyahu recalled for the more than 500 delegates on the assembly’s final day that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion concluded nearly 50 years ago that “there is no way to resolve the disagreements between the halachic view of running the Jewish state and the secular view.” For this reason, Netanyahu said, the country has developed “a series of ad hoc compromises which Ben-Gurion called the status quo. “We have communities that are becoming increasingly secular, and others that are becoming increasingly religious over time.” To accommodate both lifestyles, “there are certain compromises we make to keep this society intact,” Netanyahu said. “Religious communities are closed on Shabbat, while the secular communities are open. Some Israelis go to the army, some go to yeshivot.” In his address Netanyahu appeared to scold Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders for disturbing what he called “the slowly evolving status quo.” In an apparent reference to Diaspora efforts to block legislation that would cement in law Orthodox authority over conversions, Netanyahu said, “there was an attempt to deliver a hammer blow.” While he acknowledged that the conversion bill was introduced by Orthodox Knesset members without input from Diaspora Jews, Netanyahu said Diaspora Jews often do not consult Israelis on religious matters. “When it comes to patrilineal descent, no one consulted Israel,” said Netanyahu, referring to the Reform movement’s decision to regard as Jewish any child born of a Jewish father. “If you don’t want unilateral actions, let’s avoid hammer blows.” Legislative work on the conversion bill was suspended last week, after non-Orthodox leaders negotiated an accord with the government establishing a committee to find a compromise this summer on the divisive issue. “I urge people to tread very lightly on this very fragile ground,” Netanyahu said. “I urge greater tolerance toward one another.” Change, he added, “must be incremental.” Judy Palkovitz, a delegate from Pittsburgh, said she appreciated Netanyahu’s candor on the pluralism issue. “I think he said what really is, even though it’s not really what some of us would like to see.” Although she said she respects the status quo in Israel, Palkovitz wished for the day when “Reform and Conservative rabbis are recognized in Israel and allowed to do, for those who want their services, what they want.” As for the need to consult the Diaspora on religious matters in Israel, she said, “When [Netanyahu] mentioned unilaterial decisions on patrilineal descent, he was correct. It’s a two-way street. Americans can’t make decisions and just expect them to be accepted here.” At the same time, Palkovitz stressed that Jews from all streams must feel welcome in Israel. “I wish Netanyahu had explained how he’s going to protect people who go to the Kotel to pray.” A group of non-Orthodox men and women praying near the Western Wall on Shavuot were attacked by fervently Orthodox yeshiva students. In contrast to pluralism, there was consensus in the hall when Netanyahu called for 50,000 young Jews to visit Israel every year. “That’s five times the amount who normally come,” he said. “We must make great efforts to bring youngsters here. There is nothing like walking the streets of Jerusalem, touching the [Western] Wall, to connect them to their roots.” While he applauded the prime minister’s goal to bring more young Jews to Israel, Alan Feldbaum, a delegate from South Bend, Ind., had another idea. Referring to the three-day fact-finding trip he and other delegates had taken last week to the former Soviet Union, Feldbaum proposed a Peace Corps-type program that would bring together Israeli and Diaspora teens. “I’d like to take Jewish kids from the U.S. and their Israeli counterparts and send them to places like Nikolaev, a little town in Odessa we visited. They could be partners, teaching other young people. Then we would really have something.” “The opportunity is there,” Feldbaum said, “if we put the resources behind it.”