Reform ordination ceremony
Reform ordination ceremony Reuters

Israel's Reform movement is reportedly planning to co-opt legislation defining Israel as a Jewish State in order to block policies that favor the traditional Orthodox interpretation of Judaism.

Within the upcoming week, Israel is expected to pass the Nationality Law. The bill enshrines the status of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in its homeland as a unique right for the Jewish people, the symbols of the state, Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the Hebrew language as the official language.

In addition, the proposal anchors Israel's connection with Diaspora Jewry and the right to preserve a heritage for all residents of Israel, regardless of religion or nationality. The bill establishes the Hebrew calendar as the state's official calendar and the commemoration of Israel's Independence Day, the Jewish holidays, and the days of remembrance in the Basic Law.

However, Hadashot reports that the Reform movement has been readying its legal arm, the Israel Religion Action Center, to hijack the legislation in order to fight Israel's traditionally Orthodox character in the courts.

According to a document seen by Hadashot, the movement plans on fighting the legislation in a multi-stage battle. The first stage will be opposing the bill itself under the contention that "the Nationality Law is an improper and distorted law that undermines the democratic character of the state and the status of non-Jewish citizens of Israel."

As part of its effort to torpedo the bill, the movement says it will rally diaspora Jewry to oppose the law by claiming that the legislation is discriminatory towards Israel's non-Jewish citizens. The Union for Reform Judaism has already put out a statement blasting the bill as "a grave threat to Israeli democracy".

If the law does eventually pass, the movement will attempt to use clauses defining Israel as a Jewish state in "legal proceedings to promote equal rights for non-Orthodox streams and to promote freedom of religion in Israel."

According to the document, the clause defining Israel as a Jewish State "strengthens the constitutional claim that the State of Israel must act in a way that takes into account all the streams of the Jewish people."

In addition, the Reform movement plans on utilizing a clause allowing all Jews to immigrate to Israel as a legal argument against any future decision refusing to recognize Reform conversions.

The Reform Movement, represented in Israel by the Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, has few adherents in the Jewish state, with only a few dozen congregations and a few thousand active members.

Nevertheless, the movement’s North American branch has lobbied the Israeli government for decades for official recognition and state funding – a move which would violate Israel’s decades-old status quo on religion and state.

Bolstered by Supreme Court rulings in the past, including a 2002 decision requiring the state to recognize non-Jews who had undergone non-traditional conversions abroad as Jewish, the Reform Movement has pushed for use of state mikveh’s – ritual baths needed in conversion ceremonies – funding for Reform community rabbis, and autonomy at the Western Wall.

In 2017, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that the decision to freeze the Western Wall plan was made after it became clear that the Reform Movement was attempting to use the holy site as a means for achieving de facto state recognition. Netanyahu pointed to a clause in the Western Wall compromise plan which provides for logistical coordination with the Reform Movement, which he said could be construed as recognition – a violation of the status quo on religion and state.

In response, Union for Reform Judaism President Rick Jacobs denied Netanyahu’s claim that his movement is seeking ‘backdoor recognition’, saying that the Reform Movement has been explicit in its pursuit of that goal for years.

“The Reform Movement does not clandestinely demand recognition, but we do so openly and publicly. How can you claim otherwise in light of the record?”

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