Israel Radio pulls plug on non-Orthodox ads

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JERUSALEM — To Israel Radio's ear, the Reform and Conservative message — "There's more than one way to be Jewish" — may be too "ideologically controversial."

A decision last week to delay the ads prompted threats from the liberal Jewish movements that they will petition the Supreme Court against Israel's national public radio authority.

Last weekend, the Reform and Conservative movements launched their first joint advertising campaign. Large-print advertisements appeared in prominent national and local newspapers, and on public buses. Radio advertisements were to be aired this week.

"This is an unprecedented outreach to the Israeli public to inform them about the merits of alternative choices in Judaism," said Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center.

The $360,000 campaign, he said, marks the first time the two movements have launched a joint initiative to attract Israelis to liberal Judaism while emphasizing the differences between the streams.

The campaign is designed to publicize the liberal streams of Judaism "with a message that is not connected to crisis or controversy," Regev said.

But the radio campaign sparked controversy from the start. The movements planned to air 30-second segments in which Conservative and Reform rabbis introduce themselves and invite non-Orthodox Israelis to visit egalitarian synagogues as High Holy Day services near.

Israeli army radio refused to run the ads the after they heard that the Reform and Conservative movements were sponsoring them.

Israel Radio, which is under the auspices of the state-backed Israel Broadcasting Authority, signed an agreement with the movements' ad agency last month. The first ads were supposed to be aired this week.

But according to a letter sent by Amnon Nadav, manager of Israel Radio, to the radio's legal adviser, the Reform and Conservative ads "appear to represent an issue that is ideologically controversial. In such a case, they must not be approved for broadcast."

In the letter, Nadav asked his legal adviser to provide a defense for the radio's position if the case is brought to the Supreme Court.

Carmela Israeli, spokeswoman for Israel Radio, insisted the station has not officially scrapped the ads but is seeking a legal opinion as to whether they are indeed controversial.

"There has been no decision yet," she said. "According to our advertising regulations, we are not allowed to broadcast any advertisements that are ideologically or politically controversial."

Yossi Cohen, account executive at the Cohen Plus ad agency handling the account, rejected the claim that the ads were controversial.

"There is no provocative message here," he said. "This is just a warm message from two movements inviting people to learn about them."

Israel Radio has often debated whether certain proposed advertisements were controversial. However, other campaigns — some for clearly controversial issues — have been broadcast.

In 1992, Peace Now petitioned the Supreme Court against a public service television commercial on Israel's Channel One in which the Housing Ministry tried to attract people to buy homes in West Bank settlements.

Peace Now claimed the advertisement was "ideologically controversial" and therefore, according to broadcasting regulations, should not be aired. The Supreme Court rejected the argument and allowed the advertisement to air.

Media lawyers note that Israeli regulations on advertising in public and private-sector media are far more stringent than those common in Western nations.

Meanwhile, Israel's parliamentary finance committee has rejected an initiative by Knesset member Joseph Paritzky of the secularist Shinui Party. He sought to hold back an allocation to improve the Western Wall area until an area is set aside for egalitarian prayer services.

Fervently religious legislators argued by a vote of 10-2 that the allocation was designated for maintenance improvements and had nothing to do with the debate over setting aside an area for egalitarian prayer.

"Is there a government decision that in these roads, shady areas and toilets there will be discrimination between different types of Jews?" asked Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism Party. Seven fervently religious legislators stormed out of the committee room when Reform and Conservative leaders spoke.

"All we are asking is that we will also be allowed to express our belonging to the people of Israel and the religion of Israel," said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Conservative movement in Israel.