The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel are threatening to sue the Israel Broadcasting Authority over its decision to stop airing their commercials for non-Orthodox marriage ceremonies, and then carrying ads from the Orthodox that promoted its rites and attacked the others.
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA/World Union of North America, said he hoped the IBA would reverse its decision and a suit would not be necessary. He recalled that the IBA ran commercials last summer promoting attendance at Reform and Conservative synagogues only after it was threatened with legal action.
“We are hitting a very sensitive nerve,” said Rabbi Hirsch. “The Orthodox know that they are particularly weak when it comes to marriages because few Israelis, if given the choice, would choose to be married under the auspices of the [Orthodox] Chief Rabbinate.”
A spokesman for the Israeli Consulate in New York said the commercials were stopped only because they misled the public into believing that marriages performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel would be recognized by the state. Under Israeli law, only Orthodox marriages are recognized.
The marriage issue is just one example of what Reform and Conservative Jews contend is the continued Orthodox orientation of the state. On Tuesday, Israel’s High Court of Justice is scheduled to consider another issue — the right of non-Orthodox rabbis to perform conversions in Israel. The court will hear the cases of 60 adults and adopted children.
“Orthodox courts [performing conversions] are still demanding that the parents of adopted children send them to Orthodox schools and that the parents themselves change to an Orthodox lifestyle,” said Rabbi Reuven Hammer, vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.
He said a joint conversion program started last spring is expected to graduate its first students in June. But because it is geared to Russian adults only and could not convert adopted children, Rabbi Hammer said, the Conservative and Reform movements are continuing to operate their own conversion programs.
Rabbi Hammer said his lawyer would oppose any government request to postpone the proceedings because “we’ve been waiting five years now and these families would like to get a clear-cut decision.”
The head of the Masorti [Conservative] movement in Israel, Rabbi Ehud Bandel, said that to have his own Conservative marriage in Israel recognized by the state, he and his wife went to Japan and filled out some forms.
“The Jewish state now recognizes the date of our marriage as the fourth year of the emperor, and not the Jewish date on our ketubah,” he said.
Rabbis Hammer and Bandel aired their grievances in interviews at the RA’s convention last week in Philadelphia.
The legal counsel to the Masorti movement, Hila Keren, said she was married to an American by a Reform rabbi in Israel in 1992. To get the state to recognize their marriage, they obtained a civil marriage certificate by mail from Paraguay. But the U.S. government refused to recognize the document when her husband was transferred to New York for a year, so they were married again in a civil ceremony at New York’s City Hall.
Another point of contention, Rabbi Bandel said, is the High Court of Justice’s order requiring that religious councils, which disburse money and oversee such things as kosher supervision, be opened to include the non-Orthodox. Rabbi Bandel said he won the right to sit on the religious council in Jerusalem, but the minister of religious affairs, who was Orthodox, dissolved the council and appointed a committee to perform its work.
Rabbi Bandel added that the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, who is paid by the state, has proclaimed that God does not want non-Orthodox Jews on councils, whose existence were legislated by the Knesset.
“He is enjoying both worlds — he gets his salary from taxpayers and he has no respect for the rule of law,” said Rabbi Bandel.
Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel’s minister in charge of diaspora affairs and social issues, said that although “everything is not what it should be, the picture is far from how it is being described. There are several religious councils that include Reform and Conservative [Jews].
He acknowledged problems exist with the councils, but that he is fighting to do away with the councils. “They are archaic, corrupt institutions,” he said.
Also upsetting the Masorti movement is its difficulty getting government funding for its schools. Although the law requires the government to distribute money on an equal basis, the government limited its funding to programs that attracted more than 10,000 people. The Masorti movement attracts only about 6,000.
The movement successfully challenged that stipulation in court, but has had to return three times in the last seven years to get its fair share, according to Keren.
Rabbi Melchior said that under the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Reform and Conservative institutions are “for the time being given funds.” He said the Tali schools created by the Conservative movement are getting “strong public support. It doesn’t mean that everything is ideal, but we are working on it.”
He said he would also like to see the joint conversion program expanded to include conversions of children. Rabbi Melchior said plans are now in the works for a “massive expansion.”
Rabbi Bandel said more than religious pluralism, at stake is “the rule of law, the status of the supreme court, and whether Israel is going to be a democracy or a theocracy.” He said the attorney general’s investigation this week of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the Orthodox Shas party, would help determine the democratic character of the nation at a time when some of the country’s top political leaders are also under criminal investigation.
“Is he above the law?” Rabbi Bandel asked of Rabbi Yosef, who is being investigated on suspicion of incitement for comments he made about an adversary. “His followers are saying he is. This is a battle between those who stand for the rule of law and those who say he is above the law. Who is going to win?”
On the other hand, Israel’s consul general in New York, Shmuel Sisso, said he met with a delegation of 40 Jews from the Syrian community in New York last week who expressed concern that the investigation of Rabbi Yosef might “expand the rift in Israeli society.” He said they assured him that the rabbi’s words were taken out of context and he meant no harm to anyone.
Rabbi Melchior said the investigation of Rabbi Yosef is a “free speech issue that has nothing to do with pluralism or theocracy in the State of Israel.”