Israel's non-Orthodox Jews alarmed at being left out Orthodox parties win Netanyahu backing of bill that shuns liberal Judaism

October 18, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares for a visit to the United States next month, a controversy over the role of non-Orthodox Jews is again threatening to erupt in Israel that could set off a new crisis with American Jews.

Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements, who represent a minority in Israel but are the majority among American Jews, reacted with alarm Wednesday to reports that Netanyahu will back legislation that will strengthen Orthodox control over religious affairs in Israel. The legislation would also keep the liberal branches of Judaism from gaining official recognition.

As a result, they said they will likely revive court challenges to the Orthodox monopoly.

"Netanyahu is facing a moment of truth," said Rabbi Uri Regev, a leader of the Reform movement in Israel. "If he goes forward with this legislation, it will be seen by American Jews as de-legitimizing their movements and their Jewish identity, and we will go back to court."

But Orthodox Jewish lawmakers, whose 23 votes in the Israeli Parliament are more than enough to topple Netanyahu's government, say he must honor an earlier promise to formalize Orthodox control over conversions to Judaism unless an acceptable compromise can be found.

That is considered unlikely.

The latest trouble began this week when Orthodox rabbis

rejected a reported compromise under which the liberal movements would gain a limited role in controlling religious affairs here. The rejection, along with Netanyahu's subsequent pledges to Orthodox legislators, appeared to set the stage for a showdown, in Israel and abroad.

Netanyahu to introduce bill

In a meeting Tuesday with six Orthodox legislators, Netanyahu agreed that the government will introduce a bill to prevent Reform and Conservative representatives from sitting on local religious councils, which, among other things, oversee the operation of synagogues and the certification of kosher food.

He also pledged to push for passage of a law that would institutionalize the practice in Israel of giving Orthodox rabbis the exclusive right to perform conversions to Judaism inside Israel. The monopoly allows Orthodox leaders to define who is a Jew and to determine which converts qualify for Israeli citizenship.

The proposal would not affect conversions abroad, which are recognized by Israel but not by the country's Orthodox rabbinate. Nevertheless, it has enraged American Jews, many of whom believe that it relegates them to the status of "second-class Jews."

Campaign promises

In June 1996, Netanyahu enticed several small religious parties to join his coalition, in part by promising to pass the conversion bill. But during the summer he put the legislation on hold, averting a crisis with Jews worldwide by appointing a committee, headed by Finance Minister Yaacov Neeman, an Orthodox Jew, to search for a compromise.

Parts of the committee's proposed solution were leaked this week and immediately rejected by the Orthodox rabbinate. The committee reportedly suggested setting up an institute, which would include Reform and Conservative representatives, to prepare candidates for conversion. According to committee members, it also proposed allowing Conservative and Reform rabbis to perform weddings, as long as the ceremonies were supervised by Orthodox rabbis.

Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, an Orthodox legislator, said such ideas are untenable. "We have thought from the beginning that this committee would not achieve anything serious," Ravitz said. "Judaism is a religion with absolute ideas, and we cannot accept these things."

Regev, the Reform leader, said his movement is not yet discounting any chance for compromise but said the Orthodox reaction to the Neeman proposals made it appear nearly impossible.

"This indicates that a solution based on their good will is bound to fail," he said. "But we are leaving the door open to any compromise that we can live with -- not one that is an outright de-legitimization of Reform and Conservative Jews."

Pub Date: 10/18/97

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