Controversial vote kindles pluralism fire

JERUSALEM — The pluralism battle in Israel is heating up again, with the Knesset taking a first step to undermine a landmark Supreme Court ruling.

Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements decried new moves in the Knesset both to overturn recent court rulings on who may serve on municipal religious councils and to resurrect controversial amendments to Israel's conversion law.

On Monday night, in the first of three Knesset votes, Orthodox parties won support on a bill designed to bypass a Supreme Court decision requiring the government to appoint Reform and Conservative representatives to religious councils in five cities.

The bill was approved by 51-46, with 2 abstentions. The second and third (final) votes are scheduled for next week.

The Reform and Conservative movements are furious, saying the bill mocks the court and delegitimizes liberal Jewish streams in Israel and abroad.

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center, said the bill is "designed to castrate the Supreme Court's decisions" and "bring Israel back to a dark era in which the rabbinate will expand and the rule of law will be diminished."

After the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in November, some Orthodox groups vowed to undo the ruling through Knesset action.

Non-Orthodox leaders say they will take their seats on the religious councils even if the bill is eventually enacted into law.

"I will not give those people the satisfaction and pleasure of bypassing the authority of the Supreme Court," said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti movement, as the Conservative stream is known in Israel.

Bandel was slated to take his seat on the Jerusalem religious council after the recent court ruling.

Orthodox Knesset members weren't immediately available for comment. In the past, they've opposed placing Reform and Conservative members on religious councils. They say it violates the religious status quo established in the early years of the state, adding that Judaism is not pluralistic.

According to the bill, every member of a religious council will be required to abide by rulings of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Along with placing them under Orthodox control, this provision could be used to keep the Reform and Conservative delegates from funding their synagogues.

The local religious councils, supervised by the Religious Affairs Ministry, have exclusive jurisdiction over marriage, kashrut, burial and other religious matters for all Jews living in Israel. Members of each council are appointed by the local municipal council, the religious affairs minister and the local chief rabbi.

The councils are supposed to include delegates in proportion to the composition of political lists on local city councils.

The bill includes another clause that non-Orthodox groups see as an attempt to delegitimize the secular legal system. Under the clause, religious council members will pledge allegiance to the state of Israel — but not to its laws.

Other civil servants, such as judges and cabinet ministers, pledge allegiance to Israel and its laws. In a letter sent to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Dec. 24, before the vote, the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism protested the bill, saying it denies non-Orthodox Jews their rights in Israel.

The bill "may lead to a potential rupture between Israel and Diaspora Jewry," and so "must be avoided for the sake of Klal Yisrael," the totality of the Jewish community, said the council, which represents more than 1.5 million Conservative Jews in North America.