Only Four MKs Attend Founding Meeting of Knesset's Secular Caucus

Yesterday's founding conference of the Knesset's secular caucus was in one way a resounding success: Roughly 70 representatives of secular organizations attended. But from the perspective of MK attendance, it was far less successful - only four of the eight MKs who had expressed interest attended.

Above all, however, the conference revealed severe friction among past and present Meretz leaders as to what secularism is, whether a secular Judaism movement should be founded and whether secular conversion is a necessary development or an absurd concept.

On Sunday, Haaretz reported on Meretz Chairman Yossi Beilin's initiative for the establishment of a secular Judaism lobby, to be comprised of MKs and representatives of secular Jewish organizations. Among the objectives Beilin set forth were civil marriage, secular conversion, separation of religion and state, funding for secular Jewish education and, in the long run, the establishment of a secular Judaism movement alongside the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Movements.

Beilin told yesterday's conference that the secular should also be able to determine who is a Jew - for instance, deciding that someone with a Jewish father should be considered Jewish. But he admitted that the chances of passing such legislation are minimal. Therefore, perhaps "what is needed is an institution, a building with pillars in which someone will sit and say that the candidate has learned enough Judaism and give him a [conversion] certificate."

But others said that the lobby should focus on secular Jewish education.

Yisrael Beiteinu MK Israel Hasson, one of the MKs who expressed interest but failed to attend the conference, said yesterday that his party had decided not to join the lobby.

Hasson explained that Yisrael Beiteinu prefers to focus on specific legislation regarding religion and state, primarily civil marriages. As a result, Kadima was the most right-wing party represented at the conference.

United Torah Judaism MK Meir Porush circulated a letter to MKs yesterday urging them to boycott the lobby, saying it will divide the nation.

But most of the criticism aimed at Beilin came from the secular left. Former immigrant absorption minister Yair Tsaban, for instance, said "the idea of turning secularism into a religion is absurd." Forming a secular movement would only weaken the secular majority's standing, as only a few would join, he argued, while the idea of secular conversion is a "philosophical catch-22."

Like Tsaban, Meretz MK Chaim Oron supports a lobby to advance secular Judaism and oppose religious legislation, but opposes creating an institution for secular conversion "through Yossi Beilin's rabbinate."

Beilin said in response that he, too, is unsure about forming a movement, but "it never occured to me that someone from Meretz would have a problem with forming a secular lobby."