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Behind the Headlines: Formation of New Israeli Government Dampens Hopes for Religious Pluralism

July 7, 1999
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The post-election optimism among advocates of religious pluralism in Israel has dampened somewhat with the inclusion of three Orthodox parties in Israel’s new government.

Reform and Conservative leaders — who have been lobbying for years to have their rabbis, institutions and practices recognized in the Jewish state — do not expect the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak to usher in an era of change.

However, they say the elections have brought about some encouraging developments, including potentially sympathetic ears in key ministries and an increase in the Knesset in the number of supporters of religious pluralism.

While Reform and Conservative leaders in Israel speak of returning to the court system to fight for religious equality, their counterparts in the United States seem more willing to give Barak a chance to address his primary goal — peace with Syria and the Palestinians — before pressuring him about pluralism concerns.

For their part, Orthodox leaders in the United States say they are taking a “wait-and-see” approach to the new Israeli government.

They say the religious pluralism issue is of little concern to the average Israeli and assert that most Israelis are satisfied with the status quo, which gives the Orthodox rabbinate control over matters such as marriage, divorce and conversion.

Currently, weddings and conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis are not recognized by Israeli authorities, and there are no civil marriages.

While the lack of recognition for Reform and Conservative Judaism has galvanized American Jews, non-Orthodox Israeli Jews — most of whom identify as secular rather than Reform or Conservative — have been more concerned about the lack of civil marriages as well as long-standing draft deferrals for Orthodox yeshiva students.

During his campaign, Barak promised he would never support the controversial conversion bill, which lies at the heart of the pluralism conflict.

The bill, which would anchor in law the longstanding de facto Orthodox control over conversions in Israel, was proposed by those concerned that the Supreme Court was trying to change the status quo.

Barak also promised that under his administration, no Jew of any stream would feel like a second-class Jew in Israel.

In Jerusalem, Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti movement, as the Conservative movement is known in Israel, said the liberal movements would be watching closely to see if Barak keeps his campaign promises.

“This was certainly not the change we were anticipating,” said Bandel, referring to the inclusion of three Orthodox blocs in Barak’s coalition.

The groups are the Shas and the National Religious parties, and the United Torah Judaism bloc.

“We realize that there will be no significant change, at least on the constitutional level,” Bandel said. “That will mean we will have to continue to fight for our legal rights and recognition in the legal arena.”

In recent years, the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel have petitioned the Israeli courts on a number of issues, including recognition of their converts and the right to participate in local religious councils.

Concerned that these streams were making headway in the courts, the Orthodox parties sought Knesset legislation to block any change in the status quo.

Both Bandel and Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Jerusalem, said they were encouraged by an increase in the number of members elected to the new Knesset who are vocally sympathetic to their cause.

“But this is balanced by a coalition agreement which on the face of it surrenders to the status quo on matters of religion and state,” he said.

Coalition agreements Barak signed with the National Religious Party and Shas implied that the Orthodox parties may still attempt to revive the conversion bill legislation, although the possibility of a new committee to discuss compromises was also mentioned.

“The bottom line is that our work is not going to be done for us by Barak,” Regev said. “Our work will be as critical as ever, both in terms of mobilizing public opinion in Israel and throughout the Jewish world, and through addressing concrete issues by launching legal challenges.”

In New York, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA — Association of Reform Zionists of America, emphasized that the Reform movement wants to give Barak’s government the opportunity to accomplish its primary goal — attaining peace with Syria and the Palestinians.

“To a certain degree we’re giving him the benefit of the doubt,” Hirsch said, noting that “all in all we feel better with this government than the past government on matters of importance to us. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than it was.”

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement’s New York-based Jewish Theological Seminary, agreed that peace should be Barak’s top priority, adding that “absence of peace exacerbates the religious-secular rift.”

Schorsch, like others in the liberal Judaism camp, pointed to the role that potentially sympathetic leaders in the ministries of Education and Interior, formerly headed by Orthodox parties, may play in advancing religious pluralism.

The Education Ministry is now headed by Yossi Sarid, of the leftist Meretz Party, and the Interior Ministry — which controls crucial issues of citizenship and immigration — is now headed by Natan Sharansky, of the Yisrael Ba’Aliyah immigrants party.

“On the ground, on a daily basis there will be great deal of relief in the religious pluralism area,” Schorsch said.

“This will mean less friction on a daily basis and with less friction, then there will be less turning to the Israeli Supreme Court.”

Also, he said this government “is more committed to being equitable in the distribution of funds.”

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, agreed.

“There’s not going to be legislation that will equalize our status, or allow for civil marriages, but under current law there are things a friendly government can and should do for all religious institutions,” Yoffie said, adding that the Reform movement’s network of schools and youth groups in Israel are “entitled to receive government support but generally don’t.”

Orthodox leaders in the United States said they do not expect — and do not want to see — major changes in Israel on the religious pluralism front.

The Orthodox Union, led by Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, recently formed an international Orthodox group that will present a united response on the part of Orthodox Diaspora Jewry to issues that concern Israel.

“We intend to speak out, be pro-active and articulate positions to ensure the Torah standards that have guided the people of Israel for thousands of years, including one standard for conversion, marriage and divorce supported by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate,” said Ganchrow.

The new organization will issue statements and arrange for delegations to meet with the government leaders and the press.

Ganchrow and Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, said the religious pluralism issue is of little concern to most Israelis.

“Whether the new government will bode well or ill for the religious community is entirely up in the air, and we’ll have to wait and see and be hopeful,” said Shafran.

Noting that one-fourth of the Jewish vote in Israel went to a religious party, Shafran said, “It’s not at all hyperbole to say a full quarter of the Jewish population, if not more, considers what in America we call Orthodoxy to be the authentic expression of Jewish religion.”

“Even if they don’t choose to be observant, they know that when it comes to defining conversion or if something is kosher, there is only one standard,” said Shafran, who also is director of Am Echad, an organization that aims to present the Orthodox perspective to the Jewish public.

“Radically changing that single standard — which is what the Reform and Conservative movements want — is a dangerous thing to do,” he said.

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