Religious Pluralism Morass Heads Back to Courts, Knesset

It’s back to the courts and the Knesset — the very venues those seeking a way out of the religious pluralism morass had hoped to avoid.

Despite months of efforts to resolve the ongoing crisis, Orthodox political parties were expected to introduce a bill this week that would bar non-Orthodox representatives from serving on local religious councils.

A separate bill that would codify the Orthodox monopoly over conversions performed in Israel is expected to come before the Knesset next week for the second and third votes that are required for adoption.

Taken together, the legislation would severely curtail the Reform and Conservative movements’ efforts to gain official recognition in Israel.

The conflict over religious legislation was given new urgency this week as the Knesset reconvened after its summer recess.

Both bills are backed by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who decided Monday to proceed with them after the non-Orthodox movements spurned his request to accept a truce offered by the Orthodox parties.

At Netanyahu’s urging, Orthodox Knesset members had agreed Sunday to postpone action on the bills until January, provided that the non-Orthodox streams agreed to freeze their litigation on the two issues.

Netanyahu apparently had hoped to give a committee he appointed several months ago more time to find a solution to the conversion crisis.

But Reform and Conservative leaders rejected the Israeli government’s request to suspend their court actions, and the Reform movement announced Monday that it would file a new court case this week to seat one of its representatives on the religious council in Arad.

The rejection came during a whirlwind visit of a dozen U.S. Reform rabbis to Israel. They met with Netanyahu and other government officials Sunday and Monday to lobby against the two bills.

Netanyahu, livid at the non-Orthodox stance, singled out the Reform movement for criticism.

“The Reform Jews chose the path of confrontation rather than discussion and compromise,” Netanyahu said Monday in a statement. “The rejection of the compromise by the Reform Jews raises the suspicion that political factors were involved in their decision, which are deepening the division within the Jewish people and in the State of Israel.”

Knesset member Avraham Ravitz of the Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party took a similar tone, stating that “the militants in the Reform movement don’t want to make a compromise; they don’t want to succeed. They want to fight to strengthen their movements.”

However, Reform and Conservative leaders charged that the Orthodox were responsible for the breakdown because they had rejected initial proposals by the committee instructed to devise a compromise on conversions.

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Conservative/Masorti movement in Israel, told a news conference Monday that they were ready for “painful concessions” and that the Ne’eman Committee must be allowed to continue its work.

Proposals floated by the committee earlier this month, which would have given some recognition to Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel, were rejected by Israel’s two chief rabbis.

The Reform and Conservative movements said at the time that the rabbinate’s stance, supported by the Orthodox parties, had relieved them of an earlier pledge to desist from legal action to gain recognition for non-Orthodox conversions.

When the Ne’eman Committee was created, the Orthodox and non-Orthodox agreed to a cease-fire, whereby further action on the conversion bill and conversion- related court cases were suspended.

Meanwhile, Ya’acov Ne’eman, Israel’s finance minister, also blamed the Reform and Conservative movements after refusing the Orthodox offer.

At least one Netanyahu aide, while worrying about the outcome of the present crisis, still held out hope that the brakes could be placed on the legislation.

“I feel a sense of mourning that a unique opportunity may be lost” if the Reform and Conservative movements do not reconsider their decision, the prime minister’s adviser on Diaspora affairs, Bobby Brown, said in a telephone interview Monday.

But the non-Orthodox showed no signs of yielding.

Reform and Conservative representatives held marathon sessions with Knesset members from the Labor-led opposition, as well as from two coalition parties, The Third Way and Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, in the hope of persuading them to vote against the bills.

Yisrael Ba’Aliyah leader Natan Sharansky, who declared on Sunday that he would support the bills if the non-Orthodox did not agree to a cease-fire, “was furious,” according to Reform Rabbi Robert Orkand, chairman of the rabbinical cabinet of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, the Reform movement’s Zionist arm.

Orkand, a member of the Reform delegation that flew to Israel on Sunday, said Sharansky “accused us of creating the crisis. In fact the crisis was created long ago by the Orthodox establishment, which has refused to sit with us.”

With hopes of reaching a solution all but dashed, the Knesset Legislative Committee finalized its draft of the Religious Council Bill on Monday.

The bill was drafted in anticipation of a High Court of Justice hearing scheduled for Wednesday on the rights of non-Orthodox Jews to sit on the religious councils of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Kiryat Tivon.

The court has previously ruled that non-Orthodox representatives cannot be barred from being appointed to the councils, and was expected to rule similarly this week.

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