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Advocate of Israeli Pluralism Makes a Pitch for U.S. Lawyers

The Israel Religious Action Center is looking for a few good Americans — American lawyers, that is, willing to lend their civil rights expertise to the new Attorneys for Religious Freedom in Israel.

The executive director of IRAC, Rabbi Uri Regev, who is also a lawyer, made the pitch on a visit to Los Angeles during a three-week speaking tour of the United States and Canada. As the social justice arm of Reform Judaism in Israel, IRAC is at the forefront of the fight for religious pluralism in Israel, a struggle that has kept Regev and his organization in the news often during the past decade.

Some 50 speeches in nine American and Canadian cities have not diminished Regev’s intensity during an interview, nor his concern for Diaspora support in his fight against the “unholy alliance of religion and state” in Israel.

Where is the Jewish outrage and grassroots support, he asks, when Israel’s Orthodox establishment refused to recognize Jews by choice, even when they are converted by modern Orthodox rabbis in America? Or when hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants, whose right to leave the Soviet Union was championed by American Jewry, cannot get married in Israel?

Regev, a vigorous 49-year old advocate with a salt-and-pepper beard, visualizes the group as a kind of brain trust, bringing the rich experience of American civil rights and church-state litigation to bear on IRAC’s battles for religious pluralism in Israeli courts.

He cited one instance, following the opening of the Reform’s movement Hebrew Union College campus in Jerusalem. Israel’s Religious Affairs Ministry denied HUC the educational subsidies given to yeshivot on the grounds that its student body consisted of both men and women.

IRAC took the case to court, and drawing largely on the arguments used by American lawyers in their battles against the “separate but equal” doctrine, won its case.

Regev said he was encouraged by his meetings with American lawyers during his tour, including a well-attended session at the Harvard Club in Boston, and the response by attorneys, ranging in their religious outlooks from Reconstructionist to centrist Orthodox.

One of the American lawyers who has signed on is Lawrence Schulner of Camarillo, Calif.

“Our group, which includes lawyers, legal scholars, jurists and judges can be a valuable resource, because almost any kind of imaginable discrimination case has been litigated and adjudicated in American courts,” Schulner said.

“Israel may not be able to completely separate religion and state, but there should at least be equality for all religions, including all streams of Judaism,” he added.

The Palestinians’ two-month-old “Al-Aksa intifada” has driven home for Regev the insidious power of religious fundamentalism.

And it doesn’t help when Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, proclaims that Arabs are snakes and that God regrets having created them, Regev observed.

Yosef’s statements about Reform Judaism have been almost as critical. In fact, Regev says, IRAC’s battles are not basically about whether Reform or Conservative rabbis can officiate at binding marriages in Israel, but “whether we can live peacefully among ourselves in Israel and among our neighbors.”

Despite the Reform movement’s struggles in Israel, Regev is upbeat about the Reform movement’s progress in Israel, citing the presence of 25 congregations, 15 nursery schools, two major educational centers, and increasing impact on the curricula of public schools.

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