Election results imperil democracy, Israeli rabbi asserts

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Regev is renowned for his battle for religious freedom and pluralism in Israel. But the Reform rabbi, a native Israeli, fears that last week's races for prime minister and for Knesset seats will result in an Israel that resembles a theocracy.

He is addressing this issue in San Francisco at noon Friday, June 7 at the Jewish Community Relations Council, 121 Steuart St., and at 7:45 p.m. at Congregation Sherith Israel, 2266 California St. Call Marsha Felton at (415) 776-2754 for information.

In addition to concerns about the direction of the Likud leadership under Benjamin Netanyahu, he is apprehensive about the changed configuration of the Knesset. Israel's religious parties — including the National Religious Party, Shas and the United Torah Party — have gained 23 seats.

During a phone interview from Tulsa, Okla., Regev said all three parties abhor the presence of Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel, as does Netanyahu himself. He added that Netanyahu has gone so far as to tell a group of American Reform rabbis that what may be good for America — namely constitutionalism, pluralism and judicial review — is not good for Israel.

"Netanyahu has made his views known. He's anti-Reform. He's anti-pluralism. He's going to depend on the religious parties for the welfare of his government and that means we are facing the least desirable coalition from the point of view of those who want to see a democratic Israel," Regev said.

Regev is specifically concerned with laws of conversion and Israel's Basic Laws of Human Dignity and Freedom. Regev points to Netanyahu's recent support of a bill proposing special privileges for the Orthodox — including making the chief rabbinate immune from judicial review — as "an idea of what we may be coming to in the future," and thus threatening IRAC's mission.

Since its formation under the auspices of the Association of Reform Zionists of America in 1989, IRAC has been successful in changing Israeli law regarding conversion, religious councils, funding and burial.

The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled in favor of recognizing non-Orthodox conversions and of funding non-Orthodox schools and burial societies. In addition, it dissolved the religious councils in Jerusalem and two other areas because non-Orthodox candidates had been arbitrarily rejected.

Regev fears such victories will be wiped out entirely under the new leadership.

"Already Israel's character as a state [that is] both Jewish and democratic is the source of debate," Regev said. "What we're going to see now is democracy suffering at the price of strengthening religious legislation and control. We're going to see further threats on [the rights of] individuals and the authority of the Supreme Court."

However, Regev believes such threats will become a rallying point for secular, Reform and Conservative Israelis as well as American Jews. According to a Jerusalem Post article, Israel's Reform leaders are already meeting to map out their strategy.

"I doubt there is any person [who] will challenge that the majority [of these people] want Israel to be safeguarding civil liberties and freedom of religion," Regev said. The problem is "that these issues are not tested at elections and the will of the people is distorted."

Israelis, Regev explained, voted on issues of security, so social issues "were hijacked by overriding controversy over the peace process."

Meanwhile, he said, American Jews need to restructure their agenda to promote pluralism in Israel, rather than expecting to make major inroads on peace-process concerns. The ability of Americans to influence the peace process "is relatively limited," Regev said. "It is doubtful whether external intervention with the security issues Israel is facing is legitimate in the first place.

"On the other hand, it is clear to me that Israel's character as a Jewish democracy is the legitimate interest of Jews worldwide," Regev said. "Israelis aren't the only ones on the firing line. An Israel that is as close to a theocracy as realities will allow will turn its back on the bulk of world Jewry — especially North American Jewry."