Likud deals irk backers of pluralism in the U.S.

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American Jews championing religious pluralism in Israel squirmed over agreements signed this week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Orthodox coalition partners.

"If Netanyahu has got to betray two-thirds of the Jewish population of the world, he'll do it to stay in power. It's not a pretty picture of the man," said Rabbi Stephen Pearce of San Francisco's Reform Congregation Emanu-El.

"The liberal Jewish community of the world will be polarized and alienated…He's throwing mud in the face of the most supportive element of the Jewish community."

Among the agreements reached between Netanyahu and the three religious parties — Shas, United Torah Judaism and National Religious Party — is one that would close the door opened by the Supreme Court last year to non-Orthodox conversions in Israel.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said he was frightened by the commitments the government made "to de-legitimize non-Orthodox religious Jewry."

United Synagogue is part of the recently formed North American Coalition to Advance Religious Pluralism in Israel. Coalition members fear the agreements will strain relations between non-Orthodox Jews around the world and the Jewish state.

They requested a meeting with the new prime minister in Jerusalem.

Changes in the conversion policy would not affect those who were converted abroad or have an impact on the Law of Return, though some people worry that tinkering with those issues will be an inevitable next step.

Pearce expects the "Who is a Jew?" controversy will crop up seriously for the first time since it was defeated in 1988.

"There's no question that it will," Pearce said.

But Wayne Feinstein, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation executive vice president, dismissed that possibility and noted that the Likud Party has called the Law of Return a non-negotiable item.

"I think that's off the agenda," said Feinstein, before he headed to Israel this week on federation business.

At this point, he said, Jews should be more concerned about the rollback of the modest advancements Reform and Conservative Judaism have made in Israel in the past decade.

"This is troubling," he said, "but it's much less unsettling than the 1988 issue."

For Rabbi Mark Diamond of Oakland's Conservative Temple Beth Abraham, however, the certain regression for non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel is alarming.

The exclusion of Reform and Conservative conversions worries him because "the standard is not what was done but whose name or names appear at the bottom of the conversion certificate."

A conversion can be performed by a Reform or Conservative rabbi following every detail required by Jewish law and still not qualify as valid. "It's not `Who is a Jew?' but `Who is a rabbi?'" Diamond commented.

In addition, he said, many Orthodox rabbis in Israel won't perform conversions if the candidate doesn't plan on leading an Orthodox lifestyle, or if the candidate is converting in order to marry.

"There has to be an alternative," Diamond contended.

Israel's new government also plans to support legislation barring Reform and Conservative representatives from serving on religious councils, which would undermine another recent Supreme Court ruling.

In addition, the coalition agreements call for the "indefinite" continuation of a ban on the government importing non-kosher meat.

It also was agreed that a committee will be formed to deal with specific complaints of archeological digs being conducted in areas where Jewish graves are found.

The reversals will "constitute a tremendous blow and affront to our movement and our membership," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Netanyahu's deals seemed to obliterate a message delivered last week to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. There, Likud Party official Zalman Shoval pledged there would be no change in the "status quo" governing religious matters.

But such a vow means different things to different people.

To some it means protecting advances made by non-Orthodox movements through the Supreme Court to break the monopoly of the Orthodox over religious life in Israel.

To others it means preserving continuing Orthodox hegemony over religious affairs — from marriage to burial — that has existed since the state's founding, despite recent court rulings.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Eliahu Shalom Ezran of San Francisco's Magain David Sephardim Congregation completely endorsed the coalition agreements.

"I believe the Reform and Conservative movements are watering down Judaism, are compromising the main principles that Judaism is standing on," the Orthodox rabbi said.

"What's more convenient to them is what matters. Convenience is sometimes against what the Torah teaches us. There's no end to it."

The new government's move may divide the Jewish people for now, Ezran acknowledged. "But in the long run, it will be better."

Others were withholding judgment for now.

Ron Kaufman, Northern California's representative on the 120-member Jewish Agency for Israel's board of governors, is taking a wait-and-see attitude.

"To start beating our chests now will just precipitate problems," the San Franciscan said this week before heading to Israel for a Jewish Agency meeting.

Kaufman indicated he was more concerned about potential difficulties with Jewish emigration from the former Soviet Union.

Still, leaders of the United Israel Appeal, the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations have proposed a resolution calling for the legal protection of religious pluralism. It will be put up for a vote at next week's annual assembly of the Jewish Agency — the primary recipient in Israel of funds raised by those three entities.

The resolution calls on the government to refrain from passing or amending laws on conversion or other issues "in a way which may estrange major parts of the Jewish people from their linkage to the nation, to the culture and the Jewish state."