Reform and Conservative leaders are threatening to hit Israeli politicians where it hurts — in the pocketbook — for supporting a new two-pronged legislative attack aimed at blocking non-Orthodox efforts to gain equality in Israel.
In this sudden escalation of Israel’s religious pluralism war, non-Orthodox leaders this week angrily denounced the Israeli Orthodox coalition’s aggressive political maneuvers to try and prevent Reform and Conservative representatives from taking their seats on local religious councils.
“The Knesset has declared war on diaspora Jewry, and all’s fair in war,” declared Rabbi Ehud Bandel, who heads the Conservative movement in Israel. “This decision will have a far-reaching impact on support for Israel among diaspora Jews, in particular financial support.”
The decision he was referring to was a 51-46 (with two abstentions) Knesset approval on Monday of a bill, sponsored by Orthodox parties, intended to bypass a recent Supreme Court ruling requiring the government to appoint Reform and Conservative representatives to local religious councils. The bill would require every member of a religious council to adhere to the Orthodox chief rabbinate.
The outraged liberal Jewish leaders also decried a separate legislative proposal this week that would codify Orthodox control of conversions, undermining the yearlong efforts of the Neeman Committee to seek a compromise on the “who is a rabbi” issue.
In a technical maneuver, the Knesset’s House Committee ruled that last year’s dormant conversion bill was still a live proposal, meaning it could be moved for second and final passage immediately.
Both Orthodox-sponsored proposals passed the first of three required parliamentary readings in the Knesset this week, and the final two readings could come as early as next week, warned non-Orthodox leaders.
“It makes me very angry,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinic Assembly of America. “It’s a return to attempts to completely deny any status to rabbis who are not Orthodox.”
American critics also accused Israel’s Orthodox parties of trying to ram through the changes while Israel is in political chaos: the Knesset two weeks ago voted no confidence in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. That means holding new elections one year early — on May 17, 1999 — and has prompted a cadre of potential new candidates who are already jockeying for political support from the Orthodox population.
But American non-Orthodox leaders warned they are also ready to use whatever leverage they have against Knesset members who cross them.
“We will mobilize our communities and we will use every tool available to us as a resource,” read an unusual joint statement by Rabbi Meyers; his Conservative colleague Rabbi Jerome Epstein, president of United Synagogue of America; and Rabbis Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Organizations; and his Reform colleague, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the American Reform Zionist Association (ARZA).
Their statement said that Knesset members should be warned they may “be about to make a terrible personal political mistake.”
Asked what that meant, Rabbi Hirsch said that as head of a not-for-profit group he cannot be engaged in the political process, but that as an observer he speculated it would mean a drop in American Jewish philanthropic and financial support of Israeli politicians who support the Orthodox-sponsored legislation.
Israeli law bars foreign contributions to political parties but allows direct contributions to individual candidates, and it is estimated that American supporters provide the majority of funds for Israeli political campaigns. There are also other vehicles for American Jewish contributors to funnel money to the political causes of their favorite Israeli politicians.
“In my opinion, Knesset members who vote in favor of this anti-pluralistic legislation can forget about finding large cadres of donors to help support their political campaigns in this election season,” Rabbi Hirsch stated.
But some observers here believe that the few individuals who make the largest contributions to Israeli political candidates will not change their giving patterns based on the pluralism issue.
Trade Minister Natan Sharansky, head of the Yisrael b’Aliyah, party told The Jewish Week that he didn’t expect the two controversial bills to pass.
“We will continue fighting and hope to defeat it in the second and third readings,” said Sharansky, who himself did not vote.
He said the Reform and Conservative movements must ultimately show Israeli politicians that “the gains to them are more than the losses” if they want Israeli legislators to defeat the bills.
Orthodox parties drafted an amendment to the “religious councils law” after Israel’s Supreme Court in November ordered the recalcitrant Netanyahu government to allow the non-Orthodox council members to join the councils, which have exclusive jurisdiction over marriage, kashrut, burial and other religious matters for all Jews living in Israel as well as providing funding for synagogues.
The amended bill was approved on first reading Monday after ultra-Orthodox parties threatened to defeat Netanyahu’s budget bill. Netanyahu and most of his cabinet voted for the amendment. But the amendment also won support from some unexpected quarters: Minister Rafael Eitan, an avowed secularist, and Ministers Avigdor Kahalani, Yehudah Harel and Emanuel Zisman of The Third Way.
Several prominent members avoided taking a stand, including Ariel Sharon, Dan Meridor, Uzi Landau, and Benny Begin.
Avi Machlis of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.