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Despite passage of law by Knesset, non-Orthodox vow to sit on councils

JERUSALEM, Jan. 26 (JTA) — In the seesaw battle between Orthodox and non-Orthodox interests in Israel, the Orthodox have won the latest round in the Knesset. But Conservative and Reform leaders both in Israel and the United States say the Orthodox victory is only a partial one because the aim of the legislation passed Tuesday — to keep non-Orthodox Jews from serving on local religious councils — will not succeed. The legislation, vigorously pursued by the Orthodox parties and opposed with equal intensity by the Reform and Conservative movements, requires non- Orthodox representatives of local councils to pledge their acceptance of the halachic authority of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate on matters dealt with by the councils. The law, approved in its third and final vote by a razor-thin margin of 50-49, was intended to bypass recent rulings by the High Court of Justice that non- Orthodox representatives must be allowed to sit on the councils. The councils have jurisdiction, including the allocation of funds, over issues relating to marriage, kashrut, burial and other religious matters for Jews living in Israel. The issue, the latest in the battle over Reform and Conservative recognition in Israel, comes as Israel is gearing up for a new election and therefore takes on increased political significance. Observers noted that Yitzhak Mordechai, who this week was fired as defense minister and announced that he would run for prime minister as head of a new centrist party, voted for the legislation, as did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and most members of the governing coalition. Labor leader Ehud Barak voted against the legislation as did Natan Sharansky, leader of Yisrael Ba’Aliyah. Orthodox legislators had said they would hold up all legislation needed to enact the nation’s 1999 budget until after the religious council bill was approved. In a separate Knesset vote Tuesday, legislators rejected by a vote of 43-28 a religious freedom bill that included a provision to recognize civil marriages and divorces performed in Israel. Despite the law’s intention to keep them off the councils, Reform and Conservative representatives say they will do everything necessary to take their seats — including taking the necessary oath dictated by the new law. “The religious councils bill was only a partial victory for our political opponents. Our people will sit on the councils anyway,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly of America. His Israeli counterpart, Rabbi Mauricio Balter, president of the Israel Rabbinical Assembly, said during a visit to New York this week, “We have always viewed [the councils] as administrative rather than halachic instruments.” Should the rabbinate “attempt to expand their authority and try to make religious councils into a rubber stamp, we won’t allow that,” said Balter, who said he intends to take his place on the religious council in Kiryat Bialik, just outside of Haifa. Pointing out that the councils allocate government moneys for various programs, Balter vowed “to see to it that proper provisions are made and that they are given to Reform and Conservative congregations, not only Orthodox ones, and that the money is not used by the Orthodox as a slush fund.” Still, Conservative and Reform leaders in Israel and the United States lashed out at the Knesset decision, calling it a “slap in the face” and a deep disappointment. In New York, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, called the Knesset action a “significant disappointment,” particularly because “we have been litigating this matter for years and the Supreme Court has again and again affirmed that discrimination on these religious councils is forbidden.” Orthodox groups praised the passage of the legislation, which they called an important step to preserving authentic Judaism in Israel. The Orthodox members of Knesset had vowed to secure the law’s passage after the Supreme Court ruled in November that Reform and Conservative representatives be installed on local religious councils in five cities. Following another recent court ruling on the same issue, Orthodox, Reform and Conservative representatives attended a meeting Monday of the Haifa local religious council. Shortly after it convened, the Orthodox members successfully moved for an adjournment. Reform and Conservative leaders, meanwhile, took comfort in the close vote in the Knesset. “The Orthodox could muster only a one-vote majority, and it shows the success we’ve had in conveying our message,” Yoffie said. Rabbi Reuven Hammer, a Masorti leader in Israel, echoed this theme. The vote’s close margin reflected an “enormous change in public opinion in Israel,” he said while in New York this week. “It is no longer simple for religious elements to pass a religiously coercive bill even when they put all their effort in it.” Meanwhile, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, who has generated controversy by suggesting abolishing the councils altogether, caused another uproar this week by calling Reform Jews “more dangerous to the Jewish people than the Holocaust.” He later said he never meant to compare Reform Jews to the Nazis, but wanted to make the point that Reform Jews had not learned from the Holocaust and were encouraging assimilation. Among those criticizing Bakshi-Doron for his remarks was Moshe Kaveh, president of Bar-Ilan University, who said, “We have to combat assimilation through education, not battle each other with intemperate, divisive statements.” (JTA staff writer Debra Nussbaum Cohen contributed to this report.)