Knesset groups vote aids pluralism backers

JERUSALEM — A Knesset vote aimed at setting back the cause of religious pluralism in Israel has been put on hold.

In the latest in a string of victories for the Conservative and Reform movements, a Knesset committee refused this week to back a bill that would block the appointment of non-Orthodox representatives to local religious councils.

Tuesday's move by the Knesset Law Committee, which angered fervently religious legislators, prevented the bill from returning to the full Knesset.

Interior Minister Eli Suissa attempted to counter the committee's move by announcing a plan to reduce the size of the councils.

The announcement from Suissa, a member of the fervently religious Shas Party, was blasted by non-Orthodox leaders as a blatant attempt to keep Conservative and Reform representatives from serving on the councils.

A spokesman for Suissa said the minister was seeking the cuts as part of an 8-year-old plan to revamp the councils. At the same time, the spokesman conceded that the cuts could prevent non-Orthodox representatives from serving on the council.

The committee vote came on the heels of a court decision that helped clear the way for the Haifa religious council to meet next week with Orthodox, Conservative and Reform representatives.

The bill — designed to bypass a recent Supreme Court decision requiring the government to appoint Conservative and Reform representatives to municipal religious councils — was approved last month by the Knesset in the first of three votes.

Religious legislators had sought passage of the "bypass bill," which requires every member of a religious council to abide by rulings of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Reform and Conservative leaders were furious after the Knesset backed the bill in the first vote, saying the bill mocked the court's ruling.

This week, the high court issued another decision that blocked Orthodox efforts to prevent Conservative and Reform representatives from taking seats in the powerful religious councils, which have exclusive jurisdiction over marriage, kashrut, burial and other religious matters for all Jews living in Israel.

The court, which ordered the Haifa religious council to allow the participation of non-Orthodox representatives, deemed illegal an earlier order from Suissa to delay the meeting in order to prevent Conservative and Reform members from attending.

While the Haifa council is expected to convene next week, the head of the council, Yitzhak Getz, said he believes that some Orthodox members would boycott the gathering, adding that he would adjourn the meeting if fewer than half of the members attend.

After the Law Committee blocked the bill Tuesday, fervently religious Knesset members lashed out at two religiously observant members of the committee, Alex Lubotzky of the Third Way Party and Zvi Weinberg of the immigrant-rights Yisrael Ba'Aliyah Party, for voting with the majority.

Lubotzky countered that the local religious councils are outmoded and inefficient. Echoing a familiar criticism of the councils, he also charged that they primarily serve as a "source of political jobs."

Along with the dispute over the religious councils, Orthodox legislators have also turned up the heat on another issue in Israel's ongoing battle over religious pluralism.

Drawing criticism from the liberal streams in the United States as well as Israel, the legislators are seeking to revive a bill that would give the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate sole control over conversions performed in Israel.

A liberal U.S. Jewish group weighed in on the twin issues of conversions and the religious councils with an advertisement Sunday in the New York Times. The ad called on American Jews to flood the Israeli Embassy in Washington with phone calls to oppose the two bills.

"It's time for American Jews to tell the Israeli government exactly what we are. Jews," the New Israel Fund said in the ad.

An official with the embassy said Tuesday that its switchboard had been flooded with calls — but that the campaign had not disrupted normal operations.