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Non-Orthodox Score New Victory in Struggle over Religious Councils

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Israel’s Reform and Conservative movements have scored another victory in their ongoing struggle to take their seats on Jerusalem’s religious council.

State Attorney Elyakim Rubinstein said Tuesday he will not defend Yitzhak Cohen, Israel’s minister of religious affairs, in a petition brought against him to the Supreme Court by the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center.

The petition filed in March demands the annulment of a committee that Cohen, of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, appointed to circumvent a 1998 Supreme Court decision.

That decision required municipal religious councils, which administer public funds for religious services, to accept non-Orthodox delegates if appointed by a political party.

Representation on local religious councils has, along with conversion matters, been at the center of the debate over the status of non-Orthodox movements in Israel.

But Orthodox rabbis, including the Chief Rabbinate, instructed their delegates to boycott meetings at the Jerusalem council when the Conservative and Reform delegates of the liberal Meretz Party started attending in December 1998.

When the Reform movement complained that the boycotts paralyzed the council, the religious affairs minister created the alternative committee. He excluded the liberal streams and also included some Orthodox members of the original council.

The state attorney’s rejection of the Orthodox position could help accelerate a decision on a matter that has lingered for about a decade.

"This helps us in every way," said Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. "Essentially, the state attorney declared that the religious affairs ministry is violating the law and the Supreme Court rulings. All that is left now is to decide what should be done."

Ilan Elharar, media adviser to Religious Affairs Minister Cohen, said the minister would not yet respond on issues related to the case.

"The minister will apparently use an external consultant or lawyer, as well as the ministry’s legal advisers, to handle the case," said Elharar.

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