Satisfied that they have gotten the attention of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, American Jewish leaders say they will press their case for religious pluralism in Israel and hold him to a promise to make them full partners in the process.
On the heels of Netanyahu's visits this week to Indianapolis and Los Angeles, Jewish leaders said they welcomed his inclusive approach to what has become a seemingly intractable problem over the past year. But they cautioned that action is what counts.
"I think he's articulating the right words, but we're desirous of action," said John Fishel, vice president of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles.
Martin S. Kraar, executive vice president of the New York-based Council of Jewish Federations, also is cautious. "We're going to be diligent in insisting that our voices are heard and that respect for all Jews is maintained throughout the world--including Israel," he said.
The prime minister came to Indianapolis and Los Angeles chiefly to defuse the escalating "Who is a Jew?" controversy that Netanyahu now says has become a crisis threatening Jewish unity worldwide.
At issue is the government-sanctioned monopoly over religious affairs that Orthodoxy has enjoyed in Israel since the nation's founding in 1948. Conversions, marriages, divorces and funerals are only considered authentically Jewish in Israel if an Orthodox rabbi performs them. Neither the government nor the chief rabbinate recognizes as Jews anyone converted in Israel by a non-Orthodox rabbi.
When Reform Jews in Israel sought to topple the historic status quo by going to the Israeli Supreme Court, the Orthodox countered by introducing legislation in the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, to cement their monopoly into civil law. Since Israel does not have a constitution, any legislation would take precedence over a judicial decision.
For the time being, both sides have delayed pursuing judicial and legislative remedies while a commission established by Netanyahu and headed by Finance Minister Yaacov Neeman attempts to reach a compromise. Netanyahu said neither legislation nor lawsuits were the way to solve the problem.
But as U.S. leaders look ahead they said they are unsure what to expect from the commission, which has been given until Jan. 31 to devise a compromise.
Netanyahu has made it clear that American Jews will have to settle for less than full religious equality in Israel. And, he said, they should not expect Israel to adopt a purely American model of religious pluralism.
"Look, America is not Israel, and Israel is not America," he told a private satellite conference of Jewish leaders in New York and Los Angeles several days before his Sunday appearance in Indianapolis. "We have in Israel arrangements that you will find bizarre."
He held out hope that a compromise would pave the way for a "historic breakthrough" but cautioned that change would be evolutionary.
Neeman accompanied the prime minister and consulted closely with American Jewish leaders in Indianapolis. Herb Gelfand, president of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, said he was taken aback by Neeman's upbeat prognosis.
"I was encouraged by his sincerity, by his optimism, which I was a little surprised at," Gelfand said.
The gap between expectations in the Jewish Diaspora--Jews living outside of Israel--and the present Orthodox religious monopoly in Israel is formidable.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, national president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, vowed this week to hold the commission to the Jan. 31 deadline. The union is the U.S. organization of Reform temples.
Yoffie said the Reform movement will insist at a minimum that the Israeli government begin registering as Jews all people converted to Judaism by Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel. The government does accept Jews converted outside of Israel by non-Orthodox rabbis.
The Orthodox Jewish religious establishment is less accommodating. The government-sanctioned chief rabbinate has consistently ruled that within Israel only Orthodox conversions are legitimate. Further, the rabbinate said only Orthodox rabbis in Israel can perform valid Jewish marriages and funerals. Orthodox rabbinical courts also have the last word on religious divorces.
This has given rise to charges by the non-Orthodox that they are being treated as "second-class Jews."
Rabbi Harvey J. Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, a leading Reform figure in the United States, has called such a government-approved arrangement "the Jewish sister of [Ayatollah] Khomeini's Iran."