NEWS STORY: Netanyahu urges restraint on Reform quest for religious parity in Israel

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

JERUSALEM _ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appealed to a top-level delegation of American Reform Jews Friday (June 12) to end their court efforts to win state recognition in Israel, saying their movement’s quest for equality with Orthodox Judaism could be achieved only through a long and incremental process of compromise.

However, Reform leaders _ speaking after a meeting with the prime minister _ said they were not backing away from a legal showdown with the Netanyahu government over their demand that Israel recognize conversions to Judaism performed in Israel by Reform rabbis.”I will not have second class Jews and I don’t want Jews to think of themselves as second class Jews,”said Netanyahu.

His comments were in response to the concerns of Reform and other non-Orthodox religious Jews, who say that until they receive official parity with Orthodox Jews in Israel they will occupy a second-class status within the faith.

While non-Orthodox religious movements within Judaism are very small in Israel, most American Jews identify with the more liberal Reform and Conservative movements. Because of that, the conversion issue has created a major rift between the non-Orthodox movements and Netanyahu.

The prime minister hinted at Friday’s meeting that continued Reform court appeals could prompt him to make good on his promise to ultra-Orthodox Israeli politicians that he would back legislation explicitly barring state recognition of Reform converts to offset any Reform gains made in the courts.”No legislation, no litigation,”Netanyahu said, implying that Orthodox politicians would only withdraw demands for legislation if the Reform movement backs down on its court appeals. “The question is how do you define a Jew, who decides entry into the community of Jews,”the prime minister continued.”You can’t turn Israel into America, any more than you can turn America into Israel.”The only way you can move on this question is to adapt it very carefully and very slowly. You don’t want revolutions here, you want incremental and controlled evolution,”he said.”If all Jews can come here _ which we want _ how do we prevent 400,000 or 500,000 Romanians, or millions from others countries, from declaring themselves Jews,”Netanyahu added, referring to concerns that if more easier to obtain non-Orthodox conversions were recognized here, large numbers of non-Jewish foreign workers and others residing in Israel could seek conversion and thus gain automatic citizenship.

Reform leaders said the meeting, while cordial, underlined the deep differences between American Jewry and Netanyahu, who is personally secular but whose ruling coalition is dependent on Orthodox political support.”It was the same Orthodox rigidity with a sugar coating. Netanyahu’s message was that you can forget about religious freedom in Israel in the near future, and the courts are not meant to provide religious freedom,”said Rabbi Uri Regev, a leading official of the Israeli Progressive (Reform) Movement.”Netanyahu’s statements continue to show the gap between the prime minister’s perceptions and those of many Israelis and the vast majority of diaspora Jews, who believe that religious discrimination is never justified,”added Rabbi David Sapperstein, head of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C.”As long as Reform and Conservative Jews must compromise their religious beliefs to be married, are told they have limitations on their ability to pray (at the Western Wall) and are told they can’t participate on Israeli religious councils, Israel’s image is tarnished,”Sapperstein said, referring to other ways in which non-Orthodox groups in Israel lack equal status with Orthodox Jews.

Reform and Conservative movement leaders currently have more than 25 cases pending in the Israeli courts on the conversion issue alone. Attempts to reach a compromise whereby one single conversion procedure would be created for all branches of Judaism were thwarted earlier this year when Israel’s Orthodox chief rabbis nixed cooperation with their non-Orthodox counterparts.

That standoff led to the revival of Reform and Conservative efforts to obtain state recognition for their converts in the courts. In turn, Orthodox politicians began pressing again for the passage of dormant legislation that would undercut court decisions that might go against them.

The delegation of 150 visiting Reform Movement leaders spent much of their week here meeting members of Israel’s Knesset, or parliament, in an attempt to underscore the serious blow to Jewish unity they believe would result from passage of any Knesset law explicitly barring recognition of non-Orthodox converts.


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