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Israel moves to improve religious freedom – for Jews

For the first time, Israel will begin funding rabbis from the Reform and Conservative movements, which have long been shut out in a country dominated by Orthodox Judaism.

By Correspondent / June 6, 2012

An Israeli youth wrapped in a national flag prays next to ultra-Orthodox Jewish men at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City on Jerusalem Day in this May 20 file photo.

Darren Whiteside/Reuters/File

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Tel Aviv

Israel has always touted a national respect for freedom of religion in a region where religious intolerance runs high. But ever since its founding, the Jewish state has nonetheless sanctioned discrimination – against Jews.

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Orthodox denominations dominate the Israeli Rabbinate, own a virtual monopoly on funding for religious institutions, and have a lock on the clergy overseeing marriage, divorce, and conversions. Liberal movements like Conservative and Reform Judaism have traditionally been shut out.

But last week, in response to a Supreme Court petition calling for equal funding of pulpit rabbis, Israel’s Attorney General said that for the first time the state would begin paying salaries of clergy from non-Orthodox denominations. Liberal Jewish groups hailed it as a landmark in the campaign for wider pluralism, even though the Orthodox religious monopoly on the state-funded rabbinate is still intact.

"We’ve cracked the ceiling. This will merely be the beginning. It will cause a snowball,” says Steven Beck, an official at the Israel Religious Action Center which first brought the petition seven years ago and plans to mount new legal challenges with last week’s decision. “Finally in Israel Jews will be as free to practice their religion as they do elsewhere.”

Alienating Americans?

At stake is not just competition for the hearts and minds of the Jewish faithful in Israel, but also efforts to shore up US-Israeli ties. The unequal treatment of Jewish denominations could help erode Israel’s relationship with US by spurring alienation among American Jews, many of whom identify with Reform and Conservative denominations, say experts and Jewish groups.

"This is causing strain within the Diaspora," says Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. "The danger is that American Jewry is our most important source of support, and the lack of full religious pluralism could become a security threat to Israel if it undermines our relationship with American Jewish community."

At the same time however, change is almost certain to prompt resistance from the parliament’s influential Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox religious parties, who have threatened to bring down government over issues of religion and state.

Israel’s minister for religious services, Yaacov Margi, threatened to resign before agreeing to pay the salary of clergymen he views as apostates. A colleague from Mr. Margi’s party said the decision “harmed the soul of the Jewish people.”

Alien religion

To be sure, the Reform and Conservative movements are not native to Israel, and they still constitute a small minority of Israeli Jews. Their followers only started immigrating to Israel in the 1960s and 70s, and their liberal version of Judaism was foreign to Israeli Jews, who were either Orthodox or completely secular.

While such non-Orthodox movements worship freely without government intervention, if those denominations want to hold rituals at a holy site like Jerusalem’s Western Wall, they face restrictions by the Orthodox authorities entrusted by the state with managing them.

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