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Israeli Religion Bill Dividing Jews U.S. Reform, Conservative Jews Fighting Bid By Orthodox To Control Religious Law

Tue., Oct. 28, 1997

A contingent of Reform and Conservative Jews, mostly from the United States, lobbied the Knesset on Monday against legislation that would deny them legal recognition in Israel. A top government official accused them of trying to bring down the government.

With support from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s legislature is preparing to pass a bill that will give Orthodox Jews a monopoly on religious matters in Israel.

The issue is political dynamite in Israel and has put Netanyahu’s government on a collision course with American Jewry, which is dominated by Reform and Conservative movements. American Jews are among the most generous donors to Israel and provide crucial political backing in Washington.

“I’m a second-class Jew in the Jewish state,” Rabbi Gerald Weider of New York City said as he and some 20 other Reform leaders wandered the Knesset halls, lobbying against a plan that effectively denies the non-Orthodox a place on councils that oversee religious services.

The legislation is to be presented today by religious parties in Netanyahu’s coalition government. Another bill opposed by Reform Jews, making non-Orthodox conversions illegitimate, is pending.

Orthodox religious parties control a third of Netanyahu’s coalition and have vowed to topple the government unless the prime minister follows through on a promise to pass the legislation.

It is the climax of a longstanding dispute between the Orthodox stream of Judaism, which adheres to a rigid interpretation of Jewish law, and the more liberal Conservative and Reform movements, which want to adjust Judaism to modernity - allowing women rabbis, for example.

These movements have been waging a court battle to force the state to grant them greater recognition.

American Jewish leaders - and many Israelis - are warning that passage of the bill would bring about a historic split between Israel and the Jewish diaspora.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, head of the Reform Zionist Association in New York, warned of “a catastrophic rift in the Jewish people.”

Netanyahu - who lived much of his life in the United States and has close ties to the U.S. Jewish community - appears sensitive to the dangers. In July, he set up a committee headed by Finance Minister Yaacov Neeman bringing leaders from all the streams together in search of a compromise.

After arriving in Israel on Sunday, the American contingent met with Netanyahu, who asked them to allow time for Neeman’s committee to reach a compromise. Neeman reportedly is proposing the establishment of a “conversion institute,” where all the movements would work together but the Orthodox would have effective veto power.

On Monday, however, the leaders of the Reform movement announced they were rejecting the compromise and would forge ahead with several Israeli Supreme Court conversion cases.


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