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When It Comes to Religious Freedom, for Non-Orthodox Jews, Israel Is Not the Western-Style Democracy It Claims to Be

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
April 2010

Israel presents itself, and is presented by its most fervent admirers, as the Middle East’s only Western-style democracy.  
When it comes to the question of religious freedom, however, a far different picture emerges. Christians are free to be Christians, and Muslims may be Muslims. For non-Orthodox Jews, Israel provides hardly any religious freedom at all. Reform and Conservative rabbis cannot perform weddings or funerals. Their conversions are not recognized as legitimate. Indeed, Israel is a theocracy — with a very narrow, Orthodox Judaism recognized as the official state religion.  
“There is no question that we haven’t managed to untie this unholy bond between religion and state,” declares Rabbi Maya Leibovitch, the spiritual leader of Reform Congregation Kehilat Mevasseret Zion in Jerusalem, explaining that the bond between Orthodoxy and the government has only tightened since the early 1990s. (Washington Jewish Week, Nov. 26, 2009)  
Israeli members of Reform and Conservative Judaism, explained Rabbi Leibovitch, continue to wage an uphill battle to gain equal footing with the Orthodox. “I feel ashamed that the only place where you cannot choose your rabbi and congregation,” she declares, “is in Israel.”  
At a seminar in March 2010 presented by the Gildenhorn Institute for Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland, Conservative Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, declared that Israel “is the only place in the democratic world where Jews have to fight for their own freedom of religion.” (Washington Jewish Week, March 11, 2010)  
When it comes to religious conversions, the Israeli government rejects not only non-Orthodox conversions, but even conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in other countries. Consider the case of Ilana, who has been living a double life in Israel. Though her first visit was as a Catholic she moved to Israel in 2006 following her conversion to Judaism in Italy. Although the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate certifies her conversion, the civil organs of the state of Israel continue to deny her basic rights as a citizen.  
Rabbis Ed Rettig, acting director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel office, and Seth Farber, founder and director of Itim, the Jewish Life Information Center, report: “Ilana lives without medical insurance, is unable to work and has been waiting more than two years for her case for citizenship to make it to the Supreme Court. In every other Jewish community in the world, Ilana is Jewish. Not in Israel ... Civil bureaucrats are seeking to impose their will and standards on Diaspora Jewry.”  
When it comes to religious freedom for women, Israel has embraced a narrow, male-centered approach which denies women such basic rights as public prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Judaism’s most holy site.  
On Nov. 18, 2009, a 25-year-old medical student, Nofrat Frenkel, was arrested as the group Women of The Wall (WOTW) prayed just inside the women’s section of the Wall. WOTW, whose members are a mix of Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox — read the Torah with head-coverings, prayer shawls and phylacteries.  
In January, Anat Hoffman chair of WOTW was summoned to a Jerusalem police station for ques-tioning. The International Jerusalem Post (Feb. 19-26, 2010) reported: “Ultra-Orthodox men hurled epithets at a gathering of WOTW on Feb. 15, screaming ‘Nazis’ and ‘You Caused The Holocaust’ as the 200 or so mostly female worshipers took part in the group’s monthly prayer vigil.”  
American Jewish groups demand complete separation of church and state in the U.S., yet they support a theocracy in Israel. Do they believe in religious freedom as a matter of principle, or only in societies where Jews are in a minority? This is a question more and more non-Orthodox Jews are asking.

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.