When it came to forming a coalition in the Knesset, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a deal with Shas. But in the World Zionist Organization, Olmert's Kadima Party has gone in the opposite direction, forming a joint faction Tuesday with Merkaz USA, the Zionist organization of the Conservative Movement.
The deal raised eyebrows in the Knesset because of the contrast between President Moshe Katsav, who refuses to call Reform rabbis by that title, and Olmert, who called Merkaz USA president Rabbi Vernon Kurtz "kvod harav" (esteemed rabbi) at Tuesday's meeting of the World Zionist Congress.
Olmert signed an agreement in the Knesset on Tuesday creating the United Faction, a coalition in the WZO that includes Kadima, the Conservatives, Hano'ar Hatzioni and the Gil Pensioners Party. It has long been considered normal for like-minded movements to join forces in the WZO. For instance, Labor had been aligned with ARZA, the American Reform Zionist movement.
In his written address to WZO coalition members, Olmert likened Conservative Judaism to Kadima in the sense that both represent moderate voices.
"The Conservative Movement exemplifies what Maimonides praised as the 'Golden Way,' the middle route of tradition that distances itself from the extremes and advances a vision of unity through tradition, faith and Jewish culture," wrote Olmert.
Kadima MK Yoel Hason, who at 33 has become the youngest president of the Zionist Congress since Theodor Herzl, said the Conservative Movement was a legitimate partner. He said the deal did not imply acceptance of the movement's religious beliefs and would not impact the fragile status quo in Israel on matters of religion and state.
But Shas MKs said the agreement was a "step in the wrong direction." United Torah Judaism MK Avraham Ravitz called the deal "problematic" and hinted it would make it less likely that his party would join Olmert's coalition in the Knesset. He said that had his party been in the coalition, UTJ would not have permitted Kadima to form a joint faction with the Conservatives.
Leaders of the World Conservative Movement said Tuesday that the agreement would help strengthen the movement both in Israel and in the Diaspora.
David Breakstone, a member of the Zionist Executive representing the Worldwide Conservative Movement, said the agreement would provide more funding for Conservative Judaism, give it more influence in World Zionist institutions and improve its standing in Israel.
One of the issues concerning Conservative Jews in Israel is lack of access to religious funding and services. For example, women referred to mikvaot ritual baths by Conservative rabbis prior to their marriage ceremony have been refused entry, said Breakstone.
"We hope to resolve the lack of access to mikvaot for non-Orthodox women," said Breakstone. "After this deal and statements made by the prime minister, I believe we will have a more sympathetic ear in the government for our demands.
"We also hope to receive state funding for [pluralistic] TALI school rabbis like the Orthodox do in their state religious schools," said Breakstone.
Breakstone said WZO funding for non-Orthodox Zionist religious activities in the Diaspora would be raised to make it equal to funding for Orthodox activities.
The Orthodox Religious Affairs Department, headed by Mizrahi, receives an annual budget of $780,000, compared to just $360,000 for Reform and Conservative activities combined. Breakstone said it was unclear whether the current funding would be redistributed or new monies would be allocated to non-Orthodox budgets.
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