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Who’s for Democracy?

In recent months, as efforts to stop the Gaza plan intensified, the settler movement and its Orthodox allies in America sought to broaden their appeal by painting themselves not merely as defenders of the faith, but also as champions of democracy. Even now, with the Gaza disengagement a fait accompli, opponents continue to attack the government of Prime Minister Sharon for supposedly trampling on democracy, violating its opponents’ civil rights and engaging in blatant religious discrimination against Orthodox Jews, all with the supposed aim of silencing opponents.

It’s worth bearing that indignation in mind as Orthodox groups here and in Israel prepare their responses to the latest court appeal by the Israeli Reform movement in its quest for equal treatment before the law.

Leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel have complained for years that the Jewish state imposes blatantly undemocratic restrictions on their freedom to practice their versions of Judaism, instead granting a state monopoly to the Orthodox stream. Non-Orthodox rabbis have sought the right to perform state-sanctioned marriages and conversions and have been blocked at almost every turn. They complain of rank discrimination in building and zoning permits. Time after time they have run up against a brick wall of opposition from the Orthodox rabbinic and political establishment, which has successfully worked the larger political system to keep the non-Orthodox movements at bay. Orthodox groups in the United States have stood firmly and consistently behind their Israeli counterparts.

That has not stopped American Orthodox leaders from trumpeting their own commitment to democracy and religious freedom. Just this week the Orthodox Union, the largest American Orthodox organization, publicly accused Senator Ted Kennedy of religious discrimination because he opposed a Bush administration plan to channel cash assistance to parochial schools taking in Hurricane Katrina refugees. In a July letter to Israel’s ambassador in Washington, the O.U. protested alleged instances of Israeli security forces “singling out persons displaying outward appearances of religious observance for disparate harsh treatment” during the run-up to Gaza disengagement. The letter proudly declared that the union for more than a century has “opposed religious discrimination in all of its forms, wherever it may arise.”

The latest Israeli Reform court appeal gives the Orthodox leadership a fresh opportunity to live up to its stated commitment. As our Guy Leshem reports on Page 1, Israeli Reform rabbis serving as chief rabbis in a handful of local communities are suing for the right to receive the same government salaries as Orthodox rabbis who perform the same pastoral services in their own towns and neighborhoods. There’s nothing preventing equal treatment except blatant religious discrimination. Defenders of democracy ought to make themselves heard.




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