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Orthodox Pressing Knesset to Undermine Pluralism Ruling

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The pluralism battle in Israel is heating up again, with the Knesset taking a first step to undermine a landmark Supreme Court ruling.

On Monday, Orthodox parties won support in the first of three Knesset votes on a bill designed to bypass a recent Supreme Court decision requiring the government to appoint Reform and Conservative representatives to local religious councils. The bill was approved 51 to 46, with 2 abstentions.

The Reform and Conservative movements are furious, saying the bill mocks the court and delegitimizes liberal Jewish streams in Israel and abroad.

After the court issued a landmark ruling in November requiring that Reform and Conservative representatives be installed on local religious councils in five Israeli cities, some Orthodox groups vowed to undo the ruling through Knesset action.

Non-Orthodox leaders say they will take their seats on the religious councils even if the bill is eventually enacted into law.

“I will not give those people the satisfaction and pleasure of bypassing the authority of the Supreme Court,” said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti movement, as the Conservative stream is known in Israel.

Bandel was slated to take his seat on the Jerusalem religious council after the recent court ruling.

Orthodox Knesset members were not immediately available for comment. In the past, they have opposed placing Reform and Conservative members on the religious councils. They say it is a violation of the religious status quo established in the early years of the state of Israel, adding that Judaism is not pluralistic.

According to the bill, every member of a religious council will be required to abide by rulings of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Along with placing them under Orthodox control, this provision could be used to keep the Reform and Conservative delegates from funding their synagogues.

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.

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, said the bill is “designed to castrate the Supreme Court’s decisions” and “bring Israel back to a dark era in which the rabbinate will expand and the rule of law will be diminished.”

The bill includes another clause that has angered the non-Orthodox movements. Under this clause, religious council members will pledge allegiance to the state of Israel — but not to its laws.

Other civil servants, such as judges and Cabinet ministers, pledge allegiance to Israel and its laws. The exclusion in the bill is seen by non-Orthodox groups as an attempt to delegitimize the secular legal system.

North American Reform and Conservative leaders are also angry.

In a letter sent to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Dec. 24, the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism protested the bill, saying it denies non-Orthodox Jews their rights in Israel.

The bill “may lead to a potential rupture between Israel and Diaspora Jewry,” and so “must be avoided for the sake of Klal Yisrael,” said the council, which includes the heads of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbinical Assembly, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism and the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. Together, these groups represent more than 1.5 million Conservative Jews in North America.

The re-emergence of the pluralism battle is not directly related to Israel’s move to early elections.

But Bandel charged Orthodox groups are “exploiting the uncertainty” surrounding the elections to push through the legislation.

After the Orthodox parties’ success this week in the Knesset, the Reform and Conservative movements were preparing for an imminent revival of a controversial conversion bill that would cement into law an Orthodox monopoly on conversions performed in Israel.

Bandel said he expects the bill — which passed a first Knesset vote in April 1997 — to come before the Knesset soon for required second and third votes.

The conversion bill was put on hold after a committee headed by former Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman created a joint conversion institute including representatives from all Jewish streams. The institute is slated to begin operating next month.

The committee’s recommendations were never accepted by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, and Reform and Conservative leaders say this has left the door open for the Orthodox parties to reintroduce the conversion bill.

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