WASHINGTON (Nov. 11)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is certain to hear voices of protest from many North American Jews when he comes to the annual gathering of the Council of Jewish Federations in Indianapolis on Sunday.
But anger over the Orthodox monopoly on religious issues in Israel is not the only subject on the minds of the thousands of activists from across the United States and Canada who are gathering for the General Assembly.
They are set to deal with a panoply of issues, including an initiative on Jewish education and old staples such as the Middle East peace process and U.S. domestic policy.
For many, the G.A., as it is popularly known, is more than anything an opportunity for delegates to exchange ideas and to sharpen their fund-raising skills.
CJF is the coordinating and service organization for more than 200 autonomous local federations in North America.
In addition to Netanyahu, the Nov. 14-19 program will feature a live satellite address by President Clinton and an appearance by Ehud Barak, the head of Israel’s Labor Party.
Netanyahu, who is scheduled to speak to the delegates Sunday, has told CJF officials that he will focus on religious pluralism, Israel’s economic situation and the peace process.
But it is the pluralism issue that is attracting the most attention.
“This isn’t about conversions in Israel,” said Martin Kraar, executive vice president of CJF. “It’s about where the Israel-Diaspora relations will go in the future.”
“This very well may determine how our grandchildren relate to Israel.”
Netanyahu and his governing coalition have vowed to press ahead with legislation that would codify Orthodox control of conversion and other religious matters in Israel if no compromise is reached with the Reform and Conservative movements.
In response to a partially successful legal challenge to the Orthodox, Netanyahu and the religious streams have been working to forge a compromise.
Netanyahu bought some time last month after the Orthodox political parties in Israel and the Reform and Conservative movements agreed to give the Ne’eman Committee, which has been charged with the task of hammering out a compromise, another three months to do so.
The committee’s chairman, Israeli Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman, is scheduled to speak at the G.A. as well.
Without the extension for the committee, “the G.A. would have been explosive,” said David Minkin, chairman of the CJF Committee on the Unity of the Jewish People.
“There must be a solution found, period,” he said. “Anything short of a solution is unacceptable.”
In contrast to last year, no new resolution on the matter is slated for debate at this year’s G.A., but there are several sessions on the program devoted to the issue.
Last year’s resolution called on the Israeli government not to pass or change any legislation that would “change the current situation regarding recognition of conversions.”
Minkin said he believes that last year’s resolution “is just as applicable this year,” and if anything, he expects “a reaffirmation.”
That resolution generated strong protest from some Orthodox quarters. And the prospect of continuing discussion worries many Orthodox American Jews, who support Orthodox control over religious issues in Israel and worry about the divisiveness of the debate.
Julius Berman, honorary president of the Orthodox Union, said he believes it is a “major mistake” for CJF or any umbrella organization to debate this issue.
“All it can do is divide us,” he said.
Acknowledging “the reality” that the discussion will come up, Berman called on the participants to “dialogue and debate with less heat and more light.”
For his part, Rabbi Raphael Butler, the O.U.’s executive vice president, said the issue of pluralism `”relates to Israeli citizens” and “has absolutely no relation to Jewish life in America.”
But federation leaders do not see it that way. They believe a full-fledged discussion of the pluralism issue is the best way to respond to the groundswell of discontent among their constituents.
In addition to pluralism, the buzz going into this year’s assembly is over a resolution that would encourage all local federations to place a high priority on funding Jewish day schools.
“We’ve created a day school system that is only available to the Orthodox, who will sacrifice whatever, or those that are very wealthy,” said George Hanus, a Chicago-area businessman and chairman of the newly established National Jewish Day School Scholarship Committee who has led the fight for increased federation funding for day school tuition.
The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago recently adopted a resolution written by Hanus’ group that is slated to be debated at the assembly.
The resolution states that the individual community should “fulfill its commitment to Jewish day school education with dedication and resources consistent with its significant importance to the survival of the Jewish community.”
Kraar did not speculate about whether the education resolution would pass, but other CJF officials said they had not heard of any opposition to it.
This year’s assembly comes amid a sharply different domestic climate. Last year’s gathering came on the heels of drastic cuts in federal social-service spending and Clinton’s decision to sign welfare reform into law.
CJF officials vigorously fought the welfare bill, which cut off federal benefits for nearly all legal immigrants, including thousands of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
“People were shell shocked last year,” said Diana Aviv, director of the CJF Washington Action Office.
“This year, there’s a feeling of profound relief” because Congress and the president have restored many of the cuts, she said.
Instead, delegates this year are likely to begin a long-term discussion on how the government will reform Medicare.
“We have folks on all sides of the aisle who get Medicare,” Aviv said, referring to lower-, middle- and upper-class citizens.
How the system is reformed is likely to have a major impact on the Jewish community, which has the largest proportion of elderly members than any other ethnic group in the United States, Aviv said.
Clinton could set the stage for this debate in his live satellite broadcast scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
Clinton would become the first president to address the assembly.