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Pluralism Debate Erupts Despite Jcpa’s Best Efforts

Despite concerted efforts to keep the religious pluralism debate off the agenda of the annual gathering of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, it just couldn’t be done.

A seemingly innocuous resolution marking Israel’s 50th anniversary led to bitter debate on the issue among delegates to the umbrella organization, which is made up of local community relations councils and national agencies.

The Women’s League for Conservative Judaism objected to a Hadassah-sponsored resolution honoring Israel’s golden anniversary because it included a passage recognizing the Jewish state’s “guarantee” of certain rights of individuals, including religious rights.

Bernice Balter, executive director of the Conservative women’s organization, called the statement “overzealous” that said “something that is not true.”

“There is no equality of Judaism in Israel.”

The fact that the controversy erupted reflected the continuing feelings of intensity on the issue.

The Orthodox monopoly in Israel over religious issues such as conversion, marriage and burial has angered many American Jews, the majority of whom, when they affiliate, identify as Reform or Conservative.

The issue has created a tremendous rift between Israeli and American Jews, and between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews.

The Women’s League proposal to delete the sentence that included a recognition of religious rights led to a heated debate, during which the Orthodox Union equated the effort with the infamous United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism.

On Monday, some 300 delegates voted overwhelmingly to delete the reference to religious rights, at which point the resolution was approved by a wide majority.

The next day, however, some delegates expressed concern that the statement’s intention to mark Israel’s milestone would be lost.

Some expressed particular concern because the deleted passage had nothing to do with religious pluralism, but was rather intended to hail Israel’s history of allowing free worship by all faiths in the Jewish state, including Jerusalem, which was off limits to Jews during its occupation by Jordan following the 1948 Independence War.

This concern then prompted a flurry of negotiating between the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements to revisit the issue before the end of the plenum.

So impassioned were the Conservative feelings that officials from United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism told JCPA officials that they were considering casting the first-ever veto of a resolution on religious grounds.

But for his part, David Luchins, vice president of the Orthodox Union and the group’s long-time representative to JCPA, called the amended resolution, which had deleted the reference to religious rights, “utterly inappropriate.”

Luchins compared the flap to the refusal of some anti-peace process groups to sign a Rosh Hashanah greeting to then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“We know what that attitude leads to,” he said.

In an effort to reach a compromise, the Reform and Orthodox movements pressed the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism to reopen the debate.

The new resolution included a passage that recognizes Israel’s “commitment” to “the pursuit of the social, political, religious and cultural rights of all its citizens.”

After much hallway negotiating throughout the day on Tuesday, the new resolution was adopted unanimously.

The debates on the Israel 50 resolution came after the JCPA had devoted only one session of its four-day plenum to issues related to pluralism.

That session focused on efforts to reach common ground and understanding to avoid an explosion among U.S. Jews over the issue. The session featured Orthodox, Conservative and Reform officials in New York, who detailed how they have held dialogues on the subject.

In other action, the plenum defeated a resolution on the peace process that could have been interpreted as accusing Israel of not implementing its peace accords with the Palestinians.

Instead, it adopted what was seen as a more moderate resolution on the peace process calling for both sides to uphold its agreements.

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