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Reform Leaders Protest Vote Against Pluralism; "Culture War" Shakes Israel

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
March-April 1999

Reform Jewish leaders sharply challenged Natan Sharansky, Israel"s minister of industry and trade, for his vote against religious pluralism when he addressed the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s 29th annual convention in Jerusalem in March, 1999.  

The Washington Jewish Week (March 19, 1999) reports: "Natan Sharansky...encountered hostility...at a meeting of world leaders of the Reform movement...Seconds after taking the podium, a rabbi hurled insults at the former Soviet Jewish dissident, who was an icon in the struggle led by U.S. Jewry to free Soviet Jews during the 1970s and 1980s. ‘He’s been voting against us all the time,’ shouted Rabbi David Lilienthal of Amsterdam. ‘He owes us, and he’s betrayed us.’ Lilienthal was referring to support given by Yisrael ba’Aliyah, the immigrant party that Sharansky heads, to Orthodox-backed legislation in the Knesset that Reform Jews say delegitimizes liberal Jews."  

Many of the 250 Reform rabbis and community leaders attending the conference from around the world said they were disappointed when Sharansky failed to address the issues that have been straining Israel-Diaspora relations. Instead, he talked about a recent trip to Russia. At the end of his address, one participant shouted: "Why did you vote that we are not rabbis? Why did you vote for the conversion bill?"  

Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter Avi Machlis writes: "The hostile atmosphere put a damper on what the Reform movement hoped would be a festive occasion, as it presented Sharansky with the first-ever Russian language Reform prayer book. Only a small portion of the crowd cheered when he left."  

In February, Orthodox Jews rallied in Jerusalem to protest the Israeli Supreme Court’s recent decisions which would limit the privileges of the Orthodox in Israeli society, In a counter-rally, in behalf of religious freedom and pluralism, Jewish Agency chairman Avraham Burg declared: "There is a war in Israel. There is a cultural war...that will determine the life or death of democracy in Israel."  

Israel’s best known author, Amos Oz, issued an appeal to Israelis to join the Reform and Conservative movements as a way of protesting the religious monopoly which the Orthodox now have in Israel. In response, reports The New York Times (Feb. 18, 1999), "Hundreds of Israelis have contacted the offices of the Reform and Conservative movements to register as members. The groundswell of sympathy is a backlash against the (Orthodox) rally, which many non-religious Israelis saw as an assault on the judicial system and democratic institutions...Through a series of legal battles, the Conservative and Reform movements have chipped away at the Orthodox rabbinate’s control of religious affairs, winning court orders to register non-Orthodox conversions and to seat Conservative and Reform Jews on religious councils. The inroads have brought a torrent of invective against the chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, who has been labeled ‘an enemy of the Jews.’ Reform rabbis have been called clowns and leaders of a non-Jewish sect."  

Amos Oz declared: "We wanted to show the Orthodox that there is another Judaism that is appropriate for us and to strengthen these movements, which are being persecuted...The Judaism of these movements is closer to the position of most of the democratic Jewish public."  

Writing from Jerusalem, Washington Post (Feb. 14, 1999) correspondent Lee Hockstader provides this assessment: "The struggle casts a spotlight on the still-unsettled relations among religion, the state and society, as well as the identity of Israel itself—whether it is principally a secular democracy populated largely by Jews and governed by civil law, or a Jewish state in which Halakah, or Jewish law, is deemed sacrosanct in matters pertaining to the observant."

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