Reform and Conservative Jews on Religious
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
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