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Netanyahu speech to UJA targets terrorism, not religious pluralism

JERUSALEM, Sept. 17 (JTA) – Security, not religious pluralism, dominated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech this week before a delegation of major American Jewish donors. In an address Monday to members of the United Jewish Appeal’s Prime Minister’s Mission, Netanyahu focused on the obstacles standing in the way of peace in the region. He reiterated his stance that the Palestinian Authority must crack down on terrorism, and that trust and compromise will be necessary for peace to succeed. Only a small portion of the prime minister’s speech was devoted to the issue of religious pluralism, a fact that appeared to disturb many of the donors. He told the gathering, “The most important thing to achieve is peace among ourselves. Jews around the world are all part of a whole, a part of one people.” The pluralism issue jumped to the fore of Diaspora concerns after the Knesset took a first step earlier this year toward passing controversial conversion legislation that would codify Orthodox control over conversions performed in Israel. Netanyahu subsequently created a committee, headed by Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman, to find a compromise acceptable to the three major Jewish streams. But the committee has not yet succeeded. American Jews have been cautiously eying the progress of the conversion bill, with some so upset over the matter that they have withheld their donations to Israel. Netanyahu did not tell the UJA donors this week when he expected the Ne’eman committee to issue its recommendations. Scenes of violent confrontations between fervently Orthodox Jews and liberal Jews seeking to pray at the Western Wall on Shavuot and Tisha B’Av have also focused attention on whether Israeli officials are doing enough to foster a climate of religious pluralism. In response to a question about what the Israeli government is doing to ensure the rights of all Jews to pray at the Western Wall and other holy sites, Netanyahu said that “some of the same people” who are trying to find a solution to the conversion crisis are working on this issue. He did not elaborate. Regarding the conversion controversy, Netanyahu reiterated his belief that it was the Reform and Conservative movements that had rocked the boat by filing petitions before the Supreme Court. Following Netanyahu’s address, Irv Wein, chairman of the 1998 federation campaign in Chicago, expressed dismay at what he termed the prime minister’s “evasion of the issues.” “Instead of saying how the government will ensure that all Jews can pray at the Kotel, he reminded us that he has appointed a committee to study the conversion legislation.” What Netanyahu failed to address, Wein said, “are the increasingly aggressive tactics of the ultra-Orthodox against non-Orthodox Jews.” Unless the Israeli government does more to ensure religious pluralism, Wein warned, many American Jews will stop giving to UJA campaigns.