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Liberals Worry Coalition Deal Will Boost Orthodox Monopoly

As Israel’s Labor Party negotiates to join Ariel Sharon’s governing coalition, Reform and Conservative leaders are urging the party to stand firm against ultra-Orthodox demands over issues of religious pluralism and civil marriage.

The president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, sent a letter August 10 to Labor leader Shimon Peres asking that “no support be given in this agreement to legislation that will ignite religious tensions in the Jewish world, and that no actions be taken that will discriminate against Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel or the Diaspora.”

“At a moment when our attention as a people should be focused on fighting terror and securing peace in Israel,” Yoffie wrote, “surely it is in the interest of the Jewish state to avoid taking any steps that would divide us from one another or that would send a message to millions of Reform and Conservative Jews that their Judaism is seen as inauthentic by Israel’s leaders.”

Leaders of the Israeli branches of the Reform and Conservative movements have delivered similar messages during the past week in meetings with Labor lawmakers. Representatives of both synagogue movements say their chief fear is that Prime Minister Sharon is prepared to jettison the secularist Shinui Party in his effort to woo United Torah Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox party that opposes fervently any recognition of the more liberal religious streams.

Over the past 18 months, while Shinui has served as a partner in Sharon’s Likud-led coalition, Israel has enacted several church-state reforms and begun formulating a plan to permit civil unions. But Torah Judaism negotiators are reportedly demanding that the reforms be reversed, and that any coalition agreement with Likud explicitly forbid government discussion on introducing civil marriage or ending the ultra-Orthodox population’s blanket exemption from army service.

Reform and Conservative leaders say they find themselves in the position of supporting Sharon’s bid to construct a coalition to implement his disengagement plan, while fearing their other interests will be sacrificed in the process. Particularly frustrating, they say, has been the failure of Labor leaders to speak up during the coalition talks in support of religious pluralism issues, or even the cause of civil unions, which is seen as affecting the wider Israeli society, not only the relatively small number of Reform and Conservative adherents.

In his letter to Peres, Yoffie wrote: “The Reform movement is fully supportive of your desire to move the withdrawal plan forward; we are sympathetic, as well, to the views that you have expressed urging the withdrawal to be carried out in such a way that it enhances moderation in the Palestinian community, encourages a renewal of negotiations, and generally strengthens the peace process.”

In an interview, Yoffie noted that Peres has eloquently supported religious pluralism before Reform audiences, and he praised the Labor Party’s official platform on the issue. But while “they proclaim principles that are very close to our own,” Yoffie said, “on the implementation side they are quite low on [Labor’s] priority list.” He added: “The dramatic rise of Shinui, and the price which that extracted from Labor has not led to any re-evaluation. It is a source of disappointment and contrary to the party’s own self-interest.”

Shinui, led by Justice Minister Tommy Lapid, rocked the political landscape in 2003 by capturing 15 seats in the 120-seat Knesset and becoming the country’s third-largest party, behind Likud with 40 seats and Labor with 21. Shinui’s success was attributed widely to the failure of the two major parties to address the unhappiness of Israel’s nonobservant majority over the perceived influence of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, parties. Some analysts also said Shinui picked up a major share of Labor’s traditional base of middle-class Ashkenazic Jews.

Lapid, trumpeting the cause of secular Israelis, vowed that Shinui would never join a coalition that included an ultra-Orthodox party. The Cabinet that he joined included the National Religious Party, which is considered Modern Orthodox rather than Haredi.

In the current coalition talks, Sharon could theoretically forge a stable Likud-Labor-Shinui coalition with 76 Knesset seats. In practice, the premier is under pressure from lawmakers in his own party to bring in at least one religious faction in order to avoid forming an all-secular government in which the Likud is the right flank.

Lapid has agreed in principle to stay in the coalition even if UTJ joins, backing away from his long-standing vow not to sit with Haredim. At press time, however, Torah Judaism’s position on army deferrals and civil marriage seemed likely to force Sharon to choose between the two parties.

With Sharon seen preparing to dump Shinui, Israel Reform and Conservative leaders began meeting with Labor officials last week to urge them to safeguard the church-state gains of the past 18 months. After one such meeting last week, Labor lawmaker Ofer Pines-Paz sent his own letter to Peres, urging the party to raise the issue in coalition talks, sources said.

But so far, according to Rabbi Gilad Kariv, an Israeli Reform official, and Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti or Israeli Conservative movement, the liberal religious streams have made no headway with Peres or any of Labor’s other coalition negotiators.

For Reform and Conservative leaders, the key gains in the coalition agreement were pledges to dismantle the Orthodox-controlled Religious Affairs Ministry and the related network of local religious council, to create a mechanism for civil unions and to repeal the Tal Bill, which upholds ultra-Orthodox draft deferments. The ministry was dismantled, and the combined government allocations to Orthodox institutions were slashed by about one-third, Kariv said.

As for civil unions, a multiparty commission was established to examine the issue, led by Likud lawmaker Roni Bar-On. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens, mostly from the former Soviet Union, currently are unable to wed in a state-sanctioned ceremony in Israel since no option for civil marriage exists and the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize their Jewish status.

Just weeks ago, Kariv said, the Bar-On commission was close to completing a plan for civic unions. Under the proposal, Israelis could choose to be married by an Orthodox rabbi or enter into a civil union, with identical legal and financial rights.

The Bar-On commission has stalled, however, since Sharon began his coalition reshuffling efforts last month. Torah Judaism leaders reportedly are insisting that both civil unions and draft deferments be taken off the table.

Reform and Conservative leaders say they do not object to UTJ having its way on draft deferments. Yoffie and Bandel both indicated that civil marriage was the key issue on which they opposed concessions. Kariv also cited the scrapping of the Religious Affairs Ministry and cutting funds to Orthodox institutions.

“I prefer a situation where we get our equal allocation,” Kariv said. “But if this is not the situation, I prefer none of us” receive government funds.

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