News Analysis: Religious Pluralism Battle Erupts Anew on Two Fronts

Exactly one year ago, a committee headed by former Israeli Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman was putting the finishing touches on what was billed as a historic compromise over the conversion crisis in Israel.

It aimed to usher in a new era of dialogue between Orthodoxy and the liberal streams of Judaism and to start a process of reconciliation between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

The compromise was designed to avert the Knesset’s adoption of a bill that would codify into law the Orthodox monopoly over conversions to Judaism performed in Israel.

It called for the establishment of an institute in which the three major streams of Judaism would be involved in preparing candidates for conversion, while leaving the actual performance of the conversions under Orthodox control.

But one year later, that compromise appears destined to become no more than a historical footnote, and some fear its failure could lead to an unprecedented rift in Israel-Diaspora relations.

Although the institute is preparing to open, the compromise proposals were never accepted by Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. The liberal movements will participate, but without the rabbinate’s endorsement, Reform and Conservative leaders in Israel fear graduates of the institute may never have their conversions recognized. Nothing, they say, will have been achieved.

Instead of dialogue, the apparent failure of the Ne’eman Committee’s compromise has sent both sides in the religious pluralism campaign back to the battlefield — which is now being waged on two fronts.

Conversions: Orthodox parties in the Knesset are attempting to revive the conversion bill after the Jerusalem District Court last week ordered the Interior Ministry to recognize as Jewish 23 people who underwent conversions performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis.

The bill has been redrafted to incorporate the Ne’eman Committee’s proposals. But leaders of the liberal movements say this undermines the spirit of the compromise, which was meant to avoid legislation codifying Orthodox control over conversions.

The ruling is being appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court, which is considered likely to uphold it. But recognizing the potential for further discord, Hanan Porat, chairman of the Knesset’s Law Committee, said he would ask the Supreme Court to postpone hearing the appeal until after Israel’s May 17 national elections.

Religious councils: In another piece of legislation prompted by a court ruling — this time from the Supreme Court — Orthodox legislators last month won support in the first of three Knesset votes on a bill designed to bypass the high court’s decision requiring the government to appoint Conservative and Reform representatives to municipal religious councils.

The so-called “bypass bill” requires every member of a religious council to abide by rulings of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Reform and Conservative leaders are furious, saying the bill mocks the court’s ruling.

This week the Knesset Law Committee postponed the second and third votes on the bill by the full legislature. But at the same time, the Chief Rabbinate ordered local religious councils not to convene as long as Reform and Conservative members take their seats.

The liberal streams see much at stake in this battle because the 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.

The ongoing pluralism battle dates back to Israel’s founding.

The 1948 Declaration of Independence defined Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. But the failure to agree on a constitution has left ambiguities that persist until today.

Israel’s Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to Jews, has historically been the source of the problem. The law was amended in 1970 to define a Jew, for the purpose of receiving citizenship, as “one born of a Jewish mother or who has converted.”

Since then, groups representing the haredi, or “fervent,” side of Orthodoxy have often tried to change the law to require conversion according to halachah, or Orthodox Jewish law.

The “Who is a Jew” issue took on greater urgency in the mid-1980s, when Shas, a haredi party, secured control of the Interior Ministry and tried to prevent those converted by the Reform and Conservative movements abroad from being registered in Israel as Jewish.

In 1986, the ministry refused to register as Jewish Shoshana Miller, who converted through a Reform rabbi before moving to Israel from Colorado. Even a court ruling in her favor was not considered a precedent by the ministry, and the Reform movement petitioned the Supreme Court.

A landmark ruling in 1989 required the government to register anyone converted abroad as Jews, including those converted by Reform and Conservative rabbis.

Only a tiny number of Reform and Conservative converts immigrate to Israel each year. But for the liberal Jewish movements, the struggle has always been a matter of principle. They want to know that the Jewish state — where most religious Jews are indeed Orthodox — fully recognizes Diaspora Jews, the bulk of whom are Conservative or Reform.

Since the 1989 ruling, the Reform and Conservative movements have repeatedly turned to the courts in their struggle for recognition and equality, demanding that the government abide by the law.

But these court decisions infuriated the Orthodox, who accused the movements of trying to breach the “status quo,” a set of principles on religion and state that were agreed to by the Orthodox and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister.

And so the Orthodox parties, who have gained power in recent years, have made the Knesset their battlefield.

As part of the coalition agreements he forged before taking office in 1996, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised his powerful Orthodox allies he would push through the conversion bill.

April 1997 marked a turning point. Blaming the liberal movements for breaking the status quo and going to the Supreme Court to obtain recognition of conversions performed in Israel, the Orthodox parties pushed through the first of three votes on the conversion bill, sparking a severe crisis of confidence between Diaspora Jewry and Israel.

In June 1997, both sides agreed to freeze all court petitions and legislative moves while the Ne’eman Committee explored possible solutions to the crisis. For the first time ever, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform representatives sat together to try to forge a compromise.

The issue captured the attention of the Israeli public as never before. Newspapers frequently reported the intricacies of the debate. Moderate Orthodox groups backing the Ne’eman commission sprouted. More and more Knesset members began to support the campaign for religious equality.

But the liberal movements say the Orthodox leadership never really embraced the compromise and has even stepped up anti-Reform and anti-Conservative rhetoric since the Ne’eman Committee proposals were first floated.

The cautious optimism of last year, when the committee issued its compromise, is now a distant memory. On both sides, there is a feeling that the debate has become a zero-sum game and could explode into the worst rift ever between Israel and the Diaspora.

In New York this week, leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements warned that legislative efforts to circumvent the recent Israeli court decisions threaten to damage the emotional and philanthropic ties between North American and Israeli Jewry.

They called on Diaspora Jews not to support candidates in the upcoming Israeli elections who back the Orthodox legislative efforts.

“We must use the power of our dollars, as well as the power of our voices, to indicate we will not support candidates for prime minister or for Knesset who do not have a sensitivity to the concerns of the American and Diaspora Jewish communities,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Here in Israel, the rhetoric has also been sharp.

“There is always room to go back on the path of compromise, and it’s clear what it will take,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Israel, who has been at the forefront of the pluralism battle.

“The Chief Rabbinate must come down from its almost anti-Semitic approach and outrageous rhetoric.”

Orthodox leaders, meanwhile, believe that nothing less than the fundamental principles of the Torah are at stake — and they view this as not a subject for compromise.

“They are a new religion,” Shlomo Benizri, an influential Shas Knesset member, said in describing the Reform and Conservative movements.

“We love them, as we love all Jews, with all our hearts. But we are disgusted by their way of life, which is not in line with the Torah.”

“There can be no compromise,” insisted Benizri. “A compromise is like asking the Lord to absolve them from their responsibilities as Jews, and I have no mandate from the Creator to forge a compromise that involves recognition.”

Despite their differences, Regev and Benizri appear to agree on one point: The Ne’eman Committee’s goals were overambitious.

This being the case, both Regev and Benizri think the only way to avert disaster may be to try to forge a technical solution. Several have been raised, such as abolishing the line listing nationality on Israeli identity cards.

This would render the need to register converts as Jews a non-issue.

But for a new solution to be found, the various streams must be willing to talk — a daunting task, given all the overheated rhetoric.

NEXT STORY