Interior minister favors pluralism, but this is not our first priority

JERUSALEM — Israel's Interior Minister Haim Ramon knows he has angered many Jews in America, but he doesn't much care.

It's Israeli voters that Ramon wants to please, especially the religious ones.

"I'm in favor of pluralism, but this is not our first priority," Ramon said in explaining why he opposes the recognition of Reform rabbis in Israel.

Ramon made his comments in an interview with eight Jewish newspaper editors in his office late last month. Only a week earlier, Ramon bluntly told a delegation of Reform American rabbis that he also will not recognize as Jewish anyone who is converted by a Reform rabbi.

While Ramon is not a kippah-wearing, religious Jew, he is a consummate politician who knows what he must do to win the early elections for his Labor Party and its prime minister, Shimon Peres. He also knows that Peres cannot build a government of consensus if the religious parties are upset.

"It's not the time to change the [religious] status quo," Ramon said. "It's a consensus among the political parties in Israel not to change the status quo."

But he added that has not hampered Israelis in their day-to-day life. In fact, he noted that there have been many changes in Israel that have gone against ultra-religious beliefs.

"You can go on a Friday night in Jerusalem and see how many things are open," Ramon said.

He suggested that the country could become more pluralistic — if that's what the populace wanted.

"In Israel there is no significant Reform majority," Ramon said. "In Israel you are either Orthodox or secular."

Small Conservative and Reform Israeli groups are gaining some adherents, though.

"In no time if 100,000 or 200,000 Reform Jews would come to Israel, they would be recognized," he said. "But they cannot demand that this be changed and then I will come."

Ramon, however, resisted criticism of some diaspora Jews for their stance in the "Who Is A Jew" debate.

"Because I am not living in the diaspora, I am not going to tell the diaspora how to behave," Ramon said.

Turning to the upcoming elections in May, Ramon accused the Likud Party of trying to put a "a moderate mask on an extreme face."

"If Likud comes to power, the peace process will collapse and we will find ourselves back in Gaza," he said.