JERUSALEM, MAY 27 -- Israel's Supreme Court ruled today that a belly dancer has the right to undulate in hotels, restaurants and clubs of Jerusalem, overruling objections by Orthodox rabbis and setting a precedent in Israel's struggle between religious and secular authority.
Illana Raskin, an American-born social worker who adopted the ancient art of Oriental dancing after moving here from Philadelphia, petitioned the court last year when her once booming business was busted by Jerusalem's Rabbinical Council.
The rabbis labeled Raskin's act immodest and formally banned it from all city hotels, restaurants and clubs holding official kosher certificates. But in its ruling today,the Supreme Court agreed with the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, which took Raskin's case, that more than a dance act was at stake. The Rabbinical Council, it said, can only judge the preparation of food in hotels and restaurants, and not the allurements that may come with it.
In addition to rescuing Raskin's career, civil-rights lawyers here said, the ruling will halt pressure by the Jerusalem rabbinate against a wide variety of secular and non-Orthodox religious activity in public places. According to the civil-rights association, the rabbis have opposed Christmas trees and New Year's Eve parties in hotels and tried to forbid prayer meetings by Christian missionaries and non-Orthodox Jews.
Raskin, who said she was one of several belly dancers in Jerusalem hoping to wriggle back into business, said she was "very happy, and I think it's a step in the right direction. There have been people who have invited me in spite of the restraints, but this changes the picture. I'm looking forward to more public appearances."
"The decision protects the rights of people who because of religious beliefs wish to eat kosher food, and restricts the power of the rabbinate to force its own values and beliefs on those who do not share them," said Neta Goldman, who argued Raskin's case. "After all, there are people who like to eat kosher food and watch a belly dancer, too."
A lawyer for the rabbinate, Daniel Goldfarb, responded that "from now on, the rabbis will only be able to inspect flesh that stands on four legs."
Lawyers for the rabbinate contended that the judgment would have no practical effect. "Maybe they won in principle, but in practice nothing will change in the hotels," said lawyer David Kirschenbaum. "Hotels here don't want to get their kosher certificate from the Supreme Court, they want to get it from the rabbinate, and the rabbinate will not condone this type of activity."
Kirschenbaum denied that the rabbinate had attempted to prevent Christian and non-Orthodox Jewish prayer meetings from Jerusalem's hotels. He said that while letters by members of the Rabbinical Council to hotels protesting such activity had been introduced to the court, these were isolated examples that did not represent the council's policy.
"What we are talking about here is one belly dancer," Kirschenbaum said. "Everything else has been taken out of context."
The court case was another skirmish in what has been a long-running battle between Israel's secular and religiously devout communities for control of the country and its culture.
The conflict has focused on Jerusalem, where a rapidly growing Orthodox community has plunged into a succession of intense and sometimes violent conflicts with the local secular establishment over issues ranging from vehicle transportation on the Jewish sabbath to "lewd" billboards at bus stops.
Although the Supreme Court ruled in favor of secular rights, the Orthodox community is on the verge of scoring several important victories in the Knesset, or parliament.
Taking advantage of the prolonged parliamentary crisis that has left Israel without a permanent government for 10 weeks, Orthodox leaders have won the support of competing secular party leaders for massive new financial allocations to religious schools, as well as a new law banning the sale of pork in Israel.
In Jerusalem, Kirschenbaum said, the Rabbinical Council will continue to exert strong influence on the city's social life.
Because of the large number of observant Jews in the city, few restaurants or hotels in Jewish West Jerusalem operate without a kosher license from the rabbinate, which is meant to ensure that food can be eaten without violating religious law.