Non-Orthodox decry new setback on representation

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JERUSALEM — By a razor-thin margin of one vote, the Orthodox have won passage of a law effectively blocking non-Orthodox from serving on religious councils, delivering a major blow to Reform and Conservative interests in Israel.

Furthermore, the Knesset vote served a "devastating" setback to diaspora Jewry, said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, the executive director of ARZA/World Union, North America in New York.

In San Francisco last week for the UAHC regional biennial, Hirsch warned that the law would "label Reform and Conservative Jews first class in money but second class in religious sensibilities. It may be perceived as a minor matter of religion and state, but it is a source of our identification with Israel."

Passed by a margin of 50-49 on its third and final vote, the legislation requires non-Orthodox representatives on local councils to pledge acceptance to the halachic authority of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate on council matters. The law bypasses recent rulings by the High Court of Justice that non-Orthodox representatives must be allowed to sit on the councils.

The councils have jurisdiction over issues relating to the allocation of funds, marriage, kashrut, burial and other religious matters for Jews living in Israel.

Although the Israeli public "seems to be caring less," Hirsch said, politicians have been following the vote with unusual intensity as early elections loom.

Labor leader Ehud Barak voted against the legislation, as did Natan Sharansky, leader of Yisrael Ba'Aliyah, the emigre rights party. However, only six Labor Knesset members voted in favor of the law, although many had expressed support for it. Only one of the Arab Knesset members, who were heavily lobbied as key swing voters, voted for the bill.

Observers noted that Yitzhak Mordechai, who this week was fired as defense minister and announced that he would run for prime minister as head of a new centrist party, voted for the legislation, as did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and most members of the governing coalition.

Hirsch said Netanyahu was pinned by Orthodox legislators who promised to stymie any vote on the nation's 1999 budget until the religious council bill was approved.

But Americans feel betrayed and will remember Netanyahu's vote, Hirsch said. Vowing the law will not succeed in suppressing alternatives to Orthodox Judaism in Israel, he said, "We are not going to take this defeat lying down."

In Israel, Rabbi Ehud Bandel, leader of the country's Masorti (Conservative) movement, said U.S. Jews should not back the politicians who supported the bill. "It's appropriate to support whoever voted with us," Bandel told the Associated Press.

Under Israeli law, direct donations to prime minister candidates are not allowed, but loopholes permit donations to associations linked to candidates.

It has been estimated that American Jews will give more than $10 million to Israeli candidates in the upcoming election.

Despite the law's intention to keep them off the councils, other Reform and Conservative representatives say they will do everything necessary to take their seats — including reciting the necessary oath dictated by the new law.

Conservative Rabbi Mauricio Balter, president of the Israel Rabbinical Assembly, said during a visit to New York this week, "We have always viewed [the councils] as administrative rather than halachic instruments."

Should the rabbinate "attempt to expand their authority and try to make religious councils into a rubber stamp, we won't allow that," said Balter, who said he intends to take his place on the religious council in Kiryat Bialik, just outside of Haifa.

American Reform leaders further lashed out at the Knesset decision, calling it a "slap in the face" and a deep disappointment.

In New York, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, called the Knesset action a "significant disappointment," particularly because "we have been litigating this matter for years and the Supreme Court has again and again affirmed that discrimination on these religious councils is forbidden."

Orthodox groups praised the passage of the legislation, which they called an important step to preserving authentic Judaism in Israel. The Orthodox members of Knesset had vowed to secure the law's passage after the Supreme Court ruled in November that Reform and Conservative representatives be installed on local religious councils in five cities.

In a separate Knesset vote Tuesday, legislators rejected by a vote of 43-28 a religious freedom bill that included a provision to recognize civil marriages and divorces performed in Israel.

Meanwhile, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, who has generated controversy by suggesting abolishing the councils altogether, caused another uproar this week by calling Reform Jews "more dangerous to the Jewish people than the Holocaust."

He later said he never meant to compare Reform Jews to the Nazis but wanted to make the point that Reform Jews had not learned from the Holocaust and were encouraging assimilation.

Among those criticizing Bakshi-Doron for his remarks was Moshe Kaveh, president of Bar-Ilan University, who said, "We have to combat assimilation through education, not battle each other with intemperate, divisive statements."