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NEWS ANALYSIS National Religious Party leads fight against religious pluralism

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JERUSALEM, Aug. 25 (JTA) — A new front is quickly developing in the battle over religious pluralism in Israel. The line in the sand was drawn earlier this month when Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that the Religious Affairs Ministry must allow a Reform Jewish woman, Joyce Brenner, to take her place on a local religious council in Netanya. When Education Minister Zevulun Hammer, the longtime leader of the National Religious Party, took over the Religious Affairs Ministry this week, some observers believed he was going to be more lenient than his predecessor regarding the Brenner case. Eli Suissa of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party resigned from the Religious Affairs Ministry rather than enforce the high court’s ruling. But nothing could have been further from the truth. Surprising though it may seem to outsiders, the NRP is more hard-line on some of the pluralism questions than its fervently Orthodox partners — and sometime rivals — in the coalition. The reason for this is rooted in the NRP’s fiercely Zionist, strongly nationalistic ideology, which, indeed, is an integral part of its religious theology. This ideology prompted Hammer to assert categorically this week that his party wants to see the Knesset enact new legislation that would circumvent the Brenner ruling. The court has ruled on several occasions that non-Orthodox representatives cannot be barred from religious councils on the basis of their religious beliefs. But Hammer was making it clear that the Knesset, not the court, may have the last say on the matter. Suissa, who looked on approvingly as Hammer made the statement, had been slated even before his resignation to hand over the Religious Affairs Ministry to the NRP leader under an agreement that had been worked out when the government was created last year. When Suissa resigned, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu briefly took over the portfolio and enforced the court order — thereby temporarily heading off a crisis. But none of the parties to the controversy believed that the premier’s action represented the end of the matter. The Orthodox parties — Shas, NRP and the United Torah Front — have told the prime minister they want to see an initial vote on legislation that would bar non-Orthodox representatives from the religious councils before the Knesset’s summer recess ends. Netanyahu is trying to postpone a showdown at least until the Knesset reconvenes in November. On the opposite side of the divide, the non-Orthodox movements, buoyed by their success in Netanya, intend to push other candidates onto other religious councils — and to go back to the high court if their efforts are stymied. Another battle over the religious pluralism issue is, meanwhile, being affected by the Brenner case. Earlier this year, Netanyahu created a committee headed by Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman to seek a solution to the ongoing controversy over conversions performed in Israel. The committee’s recommendations could avert the passage of pending legislation that would codify the Orthodox monopoly over conversions performed in Israel, a measure vehemently opposed by the Conservative and Reform movements. The committee of Orthodox and non-Orthodox representatives missed its Aug. 15 deadline for reaching a compromise, and is now struggling to break its deadlock. Linking the two pluralism issues, Suissa — who retained the powerful post of interior minister after turning over the religious affairs portfolio — indicated Sunday that the Ne’eman Committee’s deliberations were likely to cease altogether unless the “status quo” regarding religious councils, violated, in his opinion, by the Brenner ruling, is quickly restored. And there is little point in looking for a gap between the NRP and the fervently Orthodox, or haredi, parties on these issues. The NRP, traditionally, has seen the Zionist movement and the State of Israel as invested with divine significance — as a tangible stage in God’s scheme for the ultimate redemption of the people of Israel and, through them, of all mankind. It is vitally important in the eyes of NRP leaders that Israel retain its Orthodox Jewish character. The party and its followers are the loyal disciples of the state’s chief rabbis, of the chief rabbis of each city and, by extension, of the religious councils, which have exclusive jurisdiction over marriage, kashrut, burial and other religious matters for all Jews living in Israel. Members of each council are appointed by the local municipal council, the religious affairs minister and the local chief rabbi. The majority of religious council chairmen across the country are NRP loyalists, and these councils have long been considered bastions of NRP support — though Shas has recently been making inroads there. For the haredim, on the other hand, there remains a residual ambivalence in their attitudes toward the State of Israel. While most mainstream haredim rejected the radical anti-Zionism of the Satmar Chasidic movement, which regards Zionism as heresy, haredim have never embraced the religious Zionist dogma, but have instead evolved a pragmatic acquiescence to modern-day Israel’s existence. During the half-century of Israel’s statehood, political crises have periodically erupted over aspects of what has come to be known as the “Who is a Jew” issue. The current arguments over conversion — and, more recently, over Reform and Conservative participation in the official religious life of the state through the local religious councils — are but the latest manifestations of this same profound, and probably irreconcilable, division between Orthodoxy and the other movements over the definition of Jewishness. During the various episodes of “Who is a Jew,” the NRP has never lagged behind the haredim. Often it has been out ahead, dragging the more fundamentalist Orthodox parties along. For the NRP, perhaps more than for Israel’s other Orthodox groupings, Reform and Conservative attempts to win official recognition and equal standing in Israel are a challenge to be confronted with unshakable resolve.

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