Israel: Religion and the Secular State
January 27, 1999

The Conversion Issue
Reform & Conservative Jews on Religious Councils
Opening Kibbutz Stores on the Sabbath
Drafting Yeshiva Students
Political Implications

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Reform and Conservative Jews on Religious Councils

In November, the High Court of Justice ruled that Jews representing non-Orthodox movements must be allowed to sit on local religious councils.

Each council, which oversees the provision of synagogues, mikvahs (ritual baths) and other religious services by the local government, is supposed to reflect the political make-up of the elected city council. Many religious councils, however, have been allowed to serve as long as 10 years, in order to prevent moves by local politicians to appoint Reform and Conservative Jews. Yet there is no official requirement that members be religiously observant and, in fact, secular Jews can serve on such councils.

On December 10, when no progress was forthcoming in implementing the High Court decision, the Reform Movement's Center for Religious Pluralism filed a petition to the High Court to find Religious Affairs Minister Eli Suissa and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who heads the councils appointments committee) in contempt of court. That same day, Prime Minister's Office Director-General Moshe Leon quickly signed an order in the prime minister's name for the inclusion of non-Orthodox Jews on the councils.

Two weeks later, though, a United Torah Judaism bill that would require religious council members to swear halachic allegiance to the local and chief rabbis passed its first reading in the Knesset, allowing it to move to committee, with the backing of Netanyahu and most of his coalition. Ultra-Orthodox coalition members had threatened to vote against crucial budget legislation unless the "High Court bypass" passed.

In committee, though, the bill met strong opposition and filibustering tactics by opposition Knesset members. In the end, MK Alex Lubotsky – the moderate, modern Orthodox member of the Third Way party – tacked on an amendment stating that failure to swear allegiance would not prevent a council member from taking his position, thereby making the law meaningless. The law in this form passed the Law Committee with the votes of the secular opposition plus the coalition votes of Lubotsky and another religious MK from a secular party, Zvi Weinberg of Yisrael Ba'aliya. The ultra-Orthodox were particularly incensed that the deciding votes came from observant Jews and accused the two of turning against God and Torah. Lubotsky retorted that he could see how opposition to the corrupt patronage system represented a rebellion against the Almighty.

Since the committee vote, Religious Affairs Minister Suissa has tried to freeze all council meetings, claiming the councils are bloated and that the number of positions should be cut by a third. The subtext: In the proposed smaller forums, there would be no need to allow representation of small minorities like Reform and Conservative Jews.

Despite this call for a freeze, religious councils met with their non-Orthodox representatives present, to avoid being found in contempt of court. The meetings have been boycotted by all but the non-Orthodox representatives, therefore preventing a quorum. When the Haifa council met for a second time in late January, under a legal stipulation that a quorum is not required for a repeat meeting, Likud and Labor representatives came to prevent the non-Orthodox representatives from initiating any action.

On January 26, the Knesset voted 50 -49 in favor of the Religious Councils bill. However, Sharon Tal of the Religious Action Center said that non-orthodox representatives would still be able to sit on the council and in the worst case could swear allegiance to the Orthodox rabbinate. The deciding vote was that of the recently-fired defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai.

Next: Opening Kibbutz Stores on the Sabbath

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