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Ask the MK: UTJ's Pindrus and Blue and White's Stern talk religious pluralism
United Torah Judaism MK: We will do everything we can to stop recognition of Reform, Conservative movements to protect the future of the Jewish people.
Throughout the lifetime of the last government, questions of religious pluralism came to the forefront of public debate time and again, in relation to the lack of recognition for the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations, the now frozen Western Wall agreement and the lack of civil marriage in Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party generally outsourced control over these issues to the haredi political parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, who steadfastly blocked any efforts to implement greater religious pluralism.

The Jerusalem Post spoke with UTJ MK Yitzhak Pindrus and Blue and White MK Elazar Stern to understand how they would approach such issues in the coming Knesset.

There is currently no provision for civil marriage in Israel, with an estimated 660,000 citizens unable to marry in the Jewish state, including LGBT people; many from the former Soviet Union; and those with various Jewish status determinations that make marriage difficult or impossible.

Stern said that Blue and White supports the establishment of civil partnerships for all through legislation and that the party would introduce such a bill if it wins the election and heads the government.

These civil partnerships would have the same legal status as marriage, but Stern said that since marriage is “a religious expression,” civil marriage specifically would not be pursued.

“We think, and I personally think, that it would be best if everyone married in Israel in accordance with Jewish law, but it is unreasonable that the state does not allow someone to marry in a civil manner if they so wish,” said the MK, who is himself from the religious Zionist community.

Asked if he was troubled by giving state sanction to potential Jewish intermarriage, Stern insisted that he wanted his children and all Jews to marry within the faith, but that a democratic country could not negate the rights of people to marry as they wish.

The Blue and White MK said that he supported giving recognition and legal standing to the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel, although the party platform does not include a commitment to legislate on this issue as it does for civil partnerships.

Stern said that non-Orthodox marriage would be recognized under the party’s civil partnerships proposal, but that in his opinion, non-Orthodox conversions should not have formal status without Orthodox rabbinic oversight.

The MK said that Blue and White would immediately implement the Western Wall agreement, which would have upgraded the current prayer space for non-Orthodox prayer at the southern end of the Western Wall; created a shared entrance for this space and the main Western Wall complex; and given the progressive Jewish movements representation on its governing body.

MK Elazar Stern (Credit: Courtesy/Office of MK Elazar Stern)

It was approved in January 2016, but indefinitely frozen in 2017 following Haredi pressure.

“We will implement this agreement on day one, without doubt,” he said.

Stern said that implementation of the Western Wall agreement could help bolster the identification of non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews with Israel and boost their Jewish identity at the same time.

“The State of Israel is a communal, educational tool for diaspora Jews to help preserve their identity,” he explained. “If you say to them ‘we don’t recognize you,’ you not only detract from their identification with the State of Israel but you also take away an important tool of theirs for preserving their communal, Jewish identity.”

PINDRUS WAS predictably far less open to any form of religious pluralism and vowed that UTJ would block any efforts to implement it during the next government.

The MK said that the status quo on religion and state issues created in 1948, which leaves all Jewish personal status issues in the hands of the Orthodox rabbinate, should be preserved and that no recognition be afforded the progressive Jewish movements.

He insisted that UTJ would block efforts to legislate civil marriage or civil partnerships, saying that there were far more religious people today than in 1948, so the status quo should be preserved.

Pindrus also insisted that UTJ would continue to block efforts to implement the Western Wall agreement, arguing that it was designed to give recognition to the progressive Jewish movements, which he and his party would not countenance.

“What they want is recognition that Judaism is something else [other than Orthodox Judaism],” he said. “The Western Wall agreement gives them recognition in the Jewish state which I don’t agree with.

“We’re not trying to change prayer services in Reform or Conservative temples, or trying to enforce gender separation at the Dizengoff Center [in Tel Aviv], and they shouldn’t try and make changes in my backyard,” he continued.

“The agenda of the non-Orthodox failed. Their agenda was to make sure we don’t lose Jews from the Jewish nation but they didn’t succeed. Now they want to try the same thing here?”

As to formal recognition of the progressive Jewish denominations for issues such as marriage and divorce, Pindrus said that UTJ would continue to staunchly oppose and block such initiatives.

“There is no doubt we will do everything to stop this in order to protect the future of the Jewish people,” he said.
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