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The View from America: Religious Pluralism Advocates Expect More Support from Barak

For those American Jews who want to see the peace process move forward and who oppose Orthodox control over religious affairs in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu was not their man.

But will incoming Prime Minister Ehud Barak become the champion of their convictions?

Barak, 57, left the military four years ago and in the mold of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, has positioned himself as a dovish security hawk.

But where does the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history stand on issues of religion and state?

“He has been absolutely consistent. It took him some time to reach a decision – – but once he did he was absolutely immovable” in his opposition to “any legislation that divides the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA — Association of Reform Zionists of America.

In a 1997 interview during the height of the controversy over conversion legislation — a move to codify Israel’s ban on the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions — Barak told JTA, “It’s not politics when it comes to dealing with the very unity of the Jewish people.

“I will never support — and the Labor Party will never support — any legislation that threatens to divide the Jewish people,” he said.

It’s a message that he has stuck with, say advocates of religious pluralism who have high hopes for their cause now that Barak will be leading Israel.

The Reform and Conservative movements have spent the last three years playing defense in the Knesset while waging battles in the Israeli courts to win official recognition of conversions performed by their rabbis and government funding for their institutions.

They now expect an entirely different dynamic in Israel on what has come to be known as the pluralism controversy.

But now that Barak has been elected prime minister, will he stick with his promises made as leader of the opposition or will he move to accommodate the haredim, or fervently Orthodox, in his quest for unity of the Jewish people?

The answer will be determined by how dependent Barak becomes on the Orthodox and fervently Orthodox parties that made significant gains in this week’s elections to the Knesset.

Some religious pluralism advocates believe that the last Labor-led governments, under Rabin and then Shimon Peres, sacrificed those issues in order to gain support for their peace policies from the Orthodox parties.

But proponents of religious pluralism believe Barak will be different. They point to Barak’s agreement with the modern Orthodox movement Meimad, which joined his One Israel party list.

Labor and Meimad reached an agreement that would significantly transform the role of religion in Israel. Based on a document hammered out earlier this year dubbed the “New Covenant on Religion and State,” the agreement calls for public transportation on Shabbat, as determined by the local authorities; the establishment of a framework for civil marriages in Israel, something which does not currently exist; and the transferring of jurisdiction of the religious courts from the Interior Ministry to the Ministry of Justice.

At the same time, it bars all business and commercial transactions on Shabbat with the exception of cultural, sport and leisure activities.

Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, said he expects Barak to follow the covenant as he seeks to reduce secular-religious tensions.

But at the same time, Schorsch predicted, Barak will tread carefully because “this government is not going to turn against the Orthodox.”

During his campaign this year, Barak reiterated his opposition to any legislation that would delegitimize Reform and Conservative Jews, including the controversial conversion bill.

“We will block it, we will not let it pass, we will raise our hands against it, period,” he told American Jewish activists in Israel earlier this year.

In January, he voted against Knesset legislation that would prevent non- Orthodox Jews from serving on local religious councils.

But Barak has stayed away from some other critical Knesset votes on the issue in recent years, including one in which Israel’s parliament last May overwhelmingly rejected legislation calling for the separation of religion and state.

He also skipped a rally in Jerusalem in February in support of the Israeli Supreme Court. The rally was held to counter a 250,000-strong Orthodox prayer demonstration called to protest what the organizers termed the “anti-religious” rulings of the high court.

Once Barak is in power — he must form a government within 45 days — the non- Orthodox are expecting dramatic changes in the way Israel approaches the religious pluralism issue.

Still, much will depend on whether Barak decides to bring Shas, the fervently Orthodox party that garnered a projected 17 seats in this week’s voting, into his coalition government.

Many observers believe that even if the new premier does bring Shas in to the government, he will not have to depend on the party for his political survival the way Netanyahu did.

Hirsch said he anticipates that there will be “some kind of empathetic, sympathetic treatment from government.”

But some Orthodox Jews in America are not so quick to dismiss the influence of the religious parties in Israel.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public relations for Agudath Israel of America, said, “We’ll see when push comes to shove” if Barak sticks to his campaign promises.

“We’re hoping he will be, as he put it, `everybody’s prime minister,'” said Shafran, who also serves as the American director of Am Echad, a group dedicated to maintaining Orthodox control over religious matters in Israel in the interest of Jewish unity.

Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union, is one of many Orthodox activists hoping that Barak will include some religious parties in his coalition.

“It’s not going to be what it was, but we should not say automatically the Orthodox community has lost its political punch,” he said.

Ganchrow expressed concern about the success of the new anti-religious party, Shinui, and of Meretz, which together garnered 15 Knesset seats.

Reflecting on that development, Ganchrow said, “We shouldn’t just attack the results. We should ask ourselves privately why people feel such antagonism toward the haredi.”

“You have to say, `Is there something we can do as a community to reduce this antagonism,'” Ganchrow said.

Hirsch, meanwhile, said that the Reform movement would continue to press its case in the Israeli courts, where we “expect results which will not be overturned or ignored.”

This strategy by the Reform movement could strain relations with the Conservative movement, which intends to take a different approach.

“The judicial arena is an area of last resort, when the political arena has been blocked,” said the Conservative movement’s Schorsch.

While many American Jews feel confident about a Barak government’s commitment to religious pluralism issues, how the premier-designate will manage the peace process is still the subject of some speculation.

President Clinton, Arafat and many European leaders rooted for a Barak victory, but they are likely to see a leader who will move cautiously on the peace process.

At the same time, the tone and tenor of the Israeli-Palestinian and the American-Israeli relationship has changed virtually overnight.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters that the Palestinians “don’t expect an easy ride” from Barak.

“But there is a difference between a tough negotiator and a non-negotiator,” he said, referring to Netanyahu.

In Washington, Clinton “warmly welcomed” Barak’s election and plans to extend an invitation to the prime minister-elect to visit the White House.

In visits to the United States before the election, Barak sharply criticized Netanyahu for creating a negative atmosphere in the peace process.

His attacks extended to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro- Israel lobby, which he charged in a private meeting last month in New York with adding fuel to the rhetorical fire.

AIPAC infuriated Labor Party leaders when it refused to invite Barak to speak at its annual policy conference, which begins on Sunday. Anticipating a June 1 runoff election, the pro-Israel lobby, citing tradition, only asked Netanyahu, as the sitting prime minister, to speak.

The group abruptly reversed course this week and officially uninvited Netanyahu, who had planned to speak by satellite, after he lost the election and resigned as the leader of the Likud Party.

AIPAC has now invited Barak to come to Washington. While he is unlikely to appear in person, there is also some question whether he’ll even address the gathering by satellite.

Some Labor Party leaders are urging Barak to refuse the invitation, but Itamar Rabinovich, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, was said to be working to mend fences between AIPAC and Labor.

Anticipating attacks from Labor activists, AIPAC this week sought to position itself on the side of the new prime minister.

“One of the guiding principles, a touchstone of AIPAC, is to work with the duly elected government of Israel,” said Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director.

Meanwhile, groups on the left side of the political spectrum welcomed Barak’s election. But, said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, “it is by no means an end in and of itself for the peace process.

“He’s not Shimon Peres,” Roth said, referring to the former Israeli prime minister. “He’s going to need encouragement to move along.”

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