Punish ultra-Orthodox Lawmakers Who Boycott Us, Reform Rabbi Demands

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MK Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism party, in December, 2015.
MK Gafni (UTJ), who proposed the new legislation relating to ritual baths, in December. It was also sponsored by four MKs from Habayit Hayehudi. Credit: Emil Salman

A leader of Reform Judaism in Israel, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, has complained to the Ethics board of the Knesset about ultra-Orthodox Knesset members who routinely boycott addresses by representatives of non-Orthodox Jewry.

Mere seconds after Kariv, the executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, received the microphone at a meeting of the Knesset’s Interior and Environment Committee last week, MK Moshe Gafni of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism rose to his feet and left the room.

The discussion was about a bill Gafni proposed to circumvent the High Court of Justice ruling that forces religious councils to allow converts through non-Orthodox avenues to use public ritual baths.

At the committee session Kariv also had criticism of the way the bill is formulated, and about the compromise suggested by the coalition.

Kariv’s address was followed by that of advocate Yizhar Hess, executive director and CEO of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel.

Only when Hess had done speaking did Gafni return to the committee room to continue the job of promoting his proposal. And throughout the debate, Gafni refused to acknowledge in his own voice that a compromise had been achieved (which was in fact presented at the committee session), under which special mikvehs (ritual baths) would be built for Reform and Conservative Jews, in exchange for advancing his legislative proposal.

Gafni, however, evidently didn’t invent the wheel. In recent years, Knesset representatives from United Torah Judaism and Shas, another ultra-orthodox party, routinely boycott or abandon discussions in which non-ultra-Orthodox representatives participate, says Kariv.

On Wednesday Kariv complained to the Knesset Ethics Committee against the ultra-Orthodox MKs, demanding that disciplinary measures be taken against them for violating the Knessset’s charter and impairing human dignity and the public’s faith in the Knesset.

“We categorically respect the freedom of expression and parliamentary activity of the Knesset members, and it is clear to us that there is no directive requiring the MKs to attend committee meetings,” Kariv wrote in his complaint. “It is also clear to us that abandoning the committee room can be a legitimate expression of opposition to the statements being made in that room. However, this was not an isolated incident or a direct response to the substance of things said in that committee room, but a blanket refusal to listen and denial of the obligation toward the people the committee summons Just as it would be unthinkable for the members of a given party to routinely abandon discussions because the speaker is Haredi, or the members of another party to do so when the speaker is an Arab, it is unthinkable for this permanent pattern of boycotting to become seen as ethical conduct befitting the status of Knesset members and the requirements of their positions.”

The fact that the three lawmakers behind the controversial bill – Gafni, Uri Maklev and Israel Eichler – were absent when he spoke, Kariv wrote, impairs their ability to do their job properly. “A Knesset member sponsoring legislation that directly targets the rights of a group of Israeli citizens, and the same MK crassly, rudely and totally refusing to hear their position, undermines the principles of the legislative process and their ethical and public duties as Knesset members,” Kariv wrote.

No comment has been received from Gafni.

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