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Israeli Supreme Court ruling reignites battle over pluralism

JERUSALEM, Nov. 23 (JTA) – A landmark ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court has touched off the latest battle over religious pluralism in the Jewish state. Some Orthodox groups, seeing red, have launched a campaign against the ruling, which requires Reform and Conservative representatives to be installed on local religious councils in five cities. On Sunday, spiritual leaders of the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism bloc instructed their four Knesset members to pull out of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition if Reform and Conservative delegates take their seats on the councils. But, not yet ready to push matters to the brink, UTJ leaders said their move did not necessarily mean they would support a no-confidence motion to bring down the government. If they withdraw, the right-of-center coalition would lose its Knesset majority, which is already shaky with a razor-thin two-vote edge. According to the decision by the group’s Council of Sages, the inclusion on religious councils of Reform Jews, who “uproot and disgrace the Torah,” would deal a severe blow to the provision of religious services in Israel. “We feel bad that in a democratic society like Israel the court should force religious people to believe that the Jewish religion is pluralistic,” said Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, a UTJ Knesset member. “We don’t believe that the Jewish religion is pluralistic,” he added. The local religious councils, supervised by the Religious Affairs Ministry, 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 councils are supposed to include delegates in proportion to the composition of political lists on local city councils. The secularist Meretz Party has supported the inclusion of representatives from Judaism’s Conservative and Reform streams. Like UTJ, other Orthodox groups were also stunned by the court’s ruling, but they did not immediately threaten the government. The National Religious Party, a more moderate Orthodox grouping, scheduled meetings this week to draw up a plan of action. In the coming weeks, the NRP and the fervently Orthodox, or haredi, parties may forge a united front to fight the decision. The campaign comes in the wake of a Nov. 19 Supreme Court ruling requiring the Religious Affairs Ministry to immediately appoint Conservative and Reform members to the local religious councils in Jerusalem and Kiryat Tivon, a town in the Galilee, by Dec. 3. Earlier this month, the court issued a similar ruling for councils in Haifa, Tel Aviv and the southern desert town of Arad. The rulings ended a nine-year struggle by representatives of the non-Orthodox streams in Israel to secure representation on the councils. In the final court hearing, an Orthodox-dominated ministerial committee proposed appointing completely secular delegates to the councils – including an owner of a non-kosher restaurant that opens for business on the Sabbath – instead of Reform and Conservative representatives. They claimed the liberal representatives are not committed to advancing religious services. Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein refused to back the government, saying the ministerial committee’s position is indefensible. Spokespersons for the liberal streams were more critical. “That in a nutshell expresses the tragedy of Orthodox life in Israel,” said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti movement, as the Conservative stream is known in Israel. He is to be appointed to the Jerusalem religious council as a result of the court ruling. “They preferred extreme, secular, anti-religious Jews – who have absolutely no interest in religious services – to an observant Conservative approach,” Bandel said. Despite the tough Orthodox rhetoric that followed the Supreme Court ruling, Bandel appealed to Orthodox groups to accept the decision. “If we would only get the chance to sit together, we will very quickly realize that the things that unite us are much greater than the things that divide us,” he said. “I don’t want to join the religious council in order to fight and argue,” he added. “I want to work together with my Orthodox colleagues to promote religious services to the entire population of the capital – haredi, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and secular.” The NRP, carefully choosing its words, implied it could accept a Conservative representative – but not a Reform delegate. “Our position, of course, completely negates the inclusion of Reform [Jews] on the religious councils,” said Zevulun Orlev, secretary-general of the NRP. Orlev said he doubted that the NRP – which has nine Knesset members in the governing coalition – would create a coalition crisis, since this would probably not solve the problem. He added that the NRP would discuss “constructive approaches,” including new legislation, to prevent the inclusion of Reform and Conservative representatives on the councils. But the religious parties will have difficulty mustering a Knesset majority among coalition members to pass any law whose aim is to bypass a Supreme Court ruling. Meanwhile, Orthodox leaders are looking for some way to deal with the ruling. Chief Sephardi Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron this week reiterated his proposal that the religious councils be eliminated altogether. Employing similar thinking, UTJ’s Ravitz said the haredi parties may try to have some of the councils’ functions transferred to the Religious Affairs Ministry. He had an additional suggestion: splitting the councils to create separate boards for the Orthodox and liberal streams. “Other faiths like Muslims have their own religious councils,” he said. “I’m sorry to say this because I believe Reformists are Jews, but if they want, let them have their own councils.”

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