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In Israel, Lack of Religious Freedom and Growing Intolerance Threaten Jewish Values

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Fall 2013

Many in the organized American Jewish community continue to proclaim that the State of Israel, rather than Judaism, is, somehow, “central” to their Jewish identity. Yet, in Israel itself, a lack of religious freedom and growing intolerance threaten Jewish values, and little concern is expressed about this glaring contradiction. Even a brief look at recent developments illustrates this growing dilemma.  
In July, Israel elected David Lau as Ashkenazi chief rabbi and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef as Sephardi chief rabbi. Rabbis Yosef and Lau were elected to 10-year terms by a body of 150 state-salaried religious functionaries. Rabbi Lau, favored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, prevailed against the more centrist Orthodox rabbi David Stav. “There was a period of time leading up to … the chief rabbinate elections in Israel where there was a glimmer of hope for moderation and the potential for some element of change,” declared Washington Jewish Week (Aug. 1, 2013) editorially. “In the final days before the election, however, it became clear that no such movement was likely. And so it is … A significant portion of Israeli Jews will remain shut out of Judaism. And the subtext of the message to an overwhelming number of Diaspora Jews is, ‘Your beliefs are not welcome here.’”  
Less Religious Freedom  
In Israel, there is less religious freedom for non-Orthodox Jews than anyplace in the Western world. Israel regularly proclaims itself a society in which there is “religious freedom.” Its definition of this term, however, is unique. Conservative and Reform rabbis have no right to perform weddings or funerals and their conversions are not recognized. Orthodox Judaism is, in effect, the state religion.  
Israel’s Declaration of Independence, read in the great hall of the Tel Aviv Art Museum on May 14, 1948, was highly liberal and modeled on the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Declaration of Independence. It was, writes Hebrew University Professor Zeev Sternhell in “The Founding Myths of Israel,” an “article for export, an act of public relations. It had no legal standing in Israeli jurisprudence and thus could not serve as a point of reference with regard to the rights of man, with regard to gender equality (which the religious parties very strongly opposed) or with regard to equality before the law, which, if applied, would have made the Arabs remaining in Israeli territory full citizens. At the end of the war, the Arabs were placed under a special regime … This regime was abolished only nearly 20 years later, in 1966. The special military regime to which the non-Jewish Israeli citizens were subject made the promulgation of a constitution impossible.”  
The religious status quo agreed to by David Ben-Gurion with the Orthodox parties in 1948 is an agreement on the role Judaism would play in Israel’s government and judicial system. The agreement was based on a letter sent by Ben-Gurion to Agudat Israel dated June 19, 1947. Among other things:  
• The chief rabbinate has authority over kashrut, Shabbat, Jewish burial and personal status issues such as marriage, divorce and conversions.  
• Streets in Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhoods are closed to traffic on the Jewish Sabbath.  
• There is no public transport on the Jewish Sabbath and most businesses are closed. However, there is public transportation in Haifa, since Haifa had a large Arab population at the time of the British Mandate.  
•Restaurants which wish to advertise themselves as kosher must be certified by the chief rabbinate.  
Exclusive Control  
The Orthodox Chief Rabbinate wields exclusive control over all Jewish aspects of the secular state of Israel. Each city and town also elects its own Orthodox chief rabbi. Through a national network of Batel Din (“religious courts”), each headed by approved Orthodox Au Beit Din judges as well as a network of “Religious Councils” that are part of each municipality, the Chief Rabbinate retains exclusive control and has the final say about all matters pertaining to conversion to Judaism, the kosher certification of foods, and the status of Jewish marriages and divorces. The Israel Defense Forces also relies on the Chief Rabbinate’s approval for its own Jewish chaplains who are exclusively Orthodox.  
Conservative and Reform rabbis cannot officiate at religious ceremonies and any marriages, divorces and conversions they perform are not considered valid. Conservative and Reform Jews have been prohibited from holding services at the Western Wall on the grounds that they violate Orthodox norms regarding the participation of women.  
In 2010, a report released by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics showed that only 8 per cent of Israel’s Jewish population defines itself as “ultra-Orthodox” and 12 per cent as Orthodox. Forty two per cent describe themselves as “secular.” Rabbi Uri Regev, who heads the Israeli organization Hiddush, which promotes religious freedom, declares that, “There is no sensible reason that the Chief Rabbinate should continue to exist as a state power-wielding institution … this outdated and coercive institution damages the reputation of Judaism and subverts the rule of law … A leading polling firm published a study showing that 67 per cent of the Jewish public opposes the continued existence of the Chief Rabbinate in its current form. Most Israelis maintain that the Chief Rabbinate alienates Israeli Jews from their Jewish heritage.”  
In Rabbi Regev’s view, there is nothing “Jewish” at all about the concept of the Chief Rabbinate. He points out that, “The Chief Rabbinate is a completely foreign institution to Jewish history and tradition. It was created by the non-Jewish Ottoman Empire and continued through the British Mandate, not to strengthen Judaism in Palestine but to meet the needs of those rulers.”  
Corrupt System of Political Spoils  
Writing in the Jewish Review of Books (Fall 2013), Professor Yehudah Mirsky of Brandeis University discussed the July election of Israel’s chief rabbis: “Every 10 years, a board of 150 electors composed of Orthodox rabbis and lay people (mainly elected officials and functionaries) … horse trade their way to the election of the two men who are, at least in theory, the spiritual leaders of the nation. In practice, the office of Chief Rabbi has become the grand prize in a corrupt system of political spoils. Indeed, as his successor and that of his Sephardi colleague were being chosen, the incumbent Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yona Metzger was already under house arrest on charges of bribery and corruption … The biggest winners were the ultra-Orthodox haredim, who solidified their hold on an institution … One Sephardi candidate, Shmuel Eliyahu, rabbi of Safed … said Jewish landlords should not rent to Arabs, leading the Attorney General to consider invalidating his candidacy on the grounds that he had violated the country’s incitement laws.”  
According to Mirsky, “More people than ever before … are publicly musing about whether the country needs a chief rabbinate at all … Israeli society has only barely begun to have a serious conversation about what, if anything, the contemporary rabbinate is for. The rich church-state discourse with which Americans are familiar has no analog here. Roger Williams’ classic theological argument that the establishment of religion inevitably damages religion itself has, for all of Israel’s vaunted attachments to America, little purchase in Israel. And the American trade-off, by which religious intensity is lowered for the sake of civic peace doesn’t sit well with Israeli intensities and primal identities. There is, as of yet, simply no civic language for arguing about the rabbinate, let alone a means of policy options.”  
Racist Comment  
The kind of religious leadership a Chief Rabbi such as David Lau can provide may be seen in his racist comment about basketball players at the Maccabian Games. Exhorting his ultra-Orthodox constituents to devote their time to learning Torah rather than watching basketball, Lau said: “Why do you care about whether the ‘kushim’ who get paid in Tel Aviv beat the ‘kushim’ who get paid in Greece?” “Kushim” is a derogatory slang term for blacks. The first English-language news site to run the story, Ynet, buried the lead of the story and focused on the rabbi’s aversion to sports. They mistranslated the word he used, “kushim,” which is more akin to “nigger” as “black men,” which in Hebrew is “shchorim,” or “anashim shchorim.” Israel’s Minister on Industry, Trade and Labor and of Religious Affairs Naftali Bennett did not condemn Lau for his words but rather condemned “the media” for “hounding” Lau. Bennett termed the comments “jovial,” “marginal” and “insignificant” and announced his support for Lau.  
Many Israelis believe that the Chief Rabbinate, rather than promoting Judaism, corrupts it. Writing in Mosaic (Aug. 2, 2013), Moshe Koppel, who teaches at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and is chairman of the Kohelet Policy Forum, a think tank in Jerusalem, argues that, “Those committed to perpetuating Judaism in Israel have an interest in limiting state involvement in religion. If Judaism is to evolve organically, as it must do and as it always has done, it must reflect the sensibilities of those committed to it, not the sensibilities of those who happen to be citizens or officials of the State of Israel, That is why … I emphasize the voluntary nature of membership in religious communities: such membership is not coextensive with citizenship and hence citizenship cannot and should not substitute for it … the state’s influence on Judaism is bad for Judaism.”  
Writing in Israel Opinion (Aug. 8, 2012), Yitzhar Hess, executive director of the Masorti Movement in Israel, which represents Conservative Judaism, declares that, “Jews do not have religious freedom in Israel … Hundreds of thousands of Israelis who do not wish to marry through the Orthodox rabbinical courts are forced to wed in Cyprus because the State of Israel will recognize a marriage if the wedding is performed by a city official in Larnica, but not if it was performed by a Conservative or Reform rabbi in Israel.”  
Many state-funded rabbis do not even recognize the legitimacy of Israel’s civil laws and judiciary. The outgoing Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, for example, explicitly wrote that the state’s laws and courts are considered “gentile” and that Israel should be ruled by the laws of the Torah, and that continuation of the existence of civil courts and laws represents “sitram Achra” (an Aramaic term for Satan).  
What Herzl Envisioned  
The theocratic structure of religion in Israel today is quite the opposite of what the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl envisioned.  
Herzl had minimal interest in religious Judaism. Instead of a Bar Mitzvah, Herzl’s 13th birthday was advertised as a “confirmation.” Herzl once suggested that the answer to the “Jewish problem” in Europe might well be a mass conversion to Christianity. According to the Israeli author Amos Elon, Herzl considered himself to be an atheist.  
In his novel Altneuland, Herzl did not foresee the Jewish inhabitants of the state he was proposing as being religious, although there would be respect for religion in the public sphere. He did not anticipate any conflict between Jews and Arabs. All non-Jews would have equal rights and an attempt by a fanatical rabbi to disenfranchise the non-Jewish citizens of their rights fails in the election which is the center of the main political plot of the novel.  
Herzl outlined his vision for a new Jewish state and summed up his vision of an open society: “It is founded on the ideas which are a common product of all civilized nations … It would be immoral if we would exclude anyone, whatever his origin, his descent or his religion, from participating in our achievements. For we stand on the shoulders of other civilized peoples … What we own we owe to the preparatory work of other peoples. Therefore, we have to repay our debt. There is only one way to do it, the highest tolerance, our motto must therefore be, now and ever, ‘Man, you are my brother.’”  
Opposed Jews as a Privileged Class  
In his novel, Herzl wrote about an electoral campaign in the new state. He directed his wrath against the nationalist party, which wished to make Jews a privileged class in Palestine. Herzl regarded that as a betrayal of Zion, for Zion was identical to him with humanitarianism and tolerance and this was true in politics as well as religion. Herzl wrote: “Matters of faith were once and for all excluded from public influence … whether anyone sought religious devotion in the synagogue, in the church, in the mosque, in the art museum or in a philharmonic concert, did not concern society. That was his own private affair.”  
Of theocracy, Herzl asked, “Shall we end by having a theocracy? No, indeed. Faith unites us, knowledge gives us freedom. We shall therefore prevent any theocratic tendencies from coming to the fore on the part of our priesthood. We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples in the same way as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks. Army and priesthood shall receive honors high as their valuable functions deserve. But they must not interfere in the administration of the state which confers distinction upon them, else they will conjure up difficulties without and within. Every man will be as free and undisturbed in his faith or his disbelief as he is in his nationality. And if it should occur that men of other creeds and different nationalities come to live amongst us, we should accord them honorable protection and equality before the law.”  
In his book Der Judenstaat, Herzl declared that, “It goes without saying that we shall respectfully tolerate persons of other faiths and protect their property, their honor and their freedom with the harshest means of coercion. This is another area in which we shall set the entire world a wonderful example …”  
Resettlement of Israel’s Bedouin  
The treatment of non-Jews, and of non-Orthodox Jews, in today’s Israel is far from the vision of equality Herzl hoped to achieve. Consider the plight of the Bedouin. In 2007, the government appointed the Goldberg Commission to address the Bedouin “problem.” There were no Bedouins on the commission. Their findings led to the Prawer Plan, a proposed law that would relocate up to 40,000 semi-nomadic Bedouins, concentrating them in seven”officially recognized” urban townships which, according to Letty Cottin Progrebin, writing in Moment (Sept./Oct. 2013) “rank at the bottom of every Israeli socioeconomic measure, with an infant mortality rate four times worse than that of any Jewish Israeli community.”  
Last June, the Prawer Plan passed its first Knesset reading. The final two readings needed in order for the Knesset bill to pass are expected in October. Progrebin provides this assessment: “Somehow, it’s unthinkable to evacuate thousands of Jews from their West Bank settlements in the interests of Israeli-Palestinian peace. But expelling 40,000 Arab Israeli citizens from their homes for the sake of Jewish development is considered a great idea. Moreover, Israel presents its transfer policy in a benevolent light, as if by trashing Bedouin dwellings, the IDF is expelling these noble savages from their ‘primitive’ habitats for their own good … .Rather than herd them into the seven ghetto-like ‘recognized’ villages … Israel should improve the conditions in the 35 ‘unrecognized’ villages … American Jews should think twice before buying a tree from the JNF in a forest that may have been created on the ruins of Bedouin homes.”  
Israel has already invested about $5.6 billion to construct military bases in the Negev and will build 10 new communities there. The Bedouin say that the plan shows that Arabs are second-class citizens in Israel. They note that the group that developed the Prawer Plan had no Arab members and did not formally consult with the local representative body of the unrecognized villages. “If the government were to recognize their villages, it would be obligated to provide services,” said Ofer Dagan of the Negev Coexistence Forum, a civil rights group. “But the only way modernization is offered to the Bedouin is through urban settlements, whereas the Jewish population is allowed a range of rural and agricultural modern settlements.”  
Arabs as Second Class Citizens  
An extensive survey released late in June shows that Arab citizens of Israel are increasingly alienated and view their status as clearly being second class. The survey, 2012 Index of Arab-Jewish Relations in Israel, was conducted by Professor Sammy Smooha of Haifa University. In Smooha’s view, eliminating discrimination is essential, but he fears that the process will be slow. The nature of the state of Israel as a Jewish state, he points out, makes it more complicated. He cites the Law of Return as an example. The law pertains to Jews and eliminates even Palestinian spouses of Arab Israelis, for fear the children may be raised unloyal to the state. But, said Smooha, Arab Israelis remain very loyal: “They are resigned with Israel as a Jewish state … They don’t want to shatter the rules, they just want more equality and dignity.”  
Muhammad Darawsha, co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, says that even the state admits that it discriminates against Arab citizens. In 2007, for example, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert delivered a speech in which he accused Israel of “deliberately and institutionally discriminating against Arabs.” The examples are many. Israel’s Land Authority has a policy of preferential treatment of Jews in land appropriation. Jews control 97 percent of the land. Arabs, who make up 21 percent of the population, 3 percent. Double the amount of the municipal budget goes to development of Jewish infrastructure. There are gaps in the education budget. Arab children learn in schools without enough classrooms and with outdated curricula. The result is that only 12 per cent of Arab children (as opposed to 25 per cent of Jewish children) attend a university.  
Darawsha, whose family has been on the land for 20 generations, says: “Every person who cares for Israel — whether outside or inside — -needs to realize that Jewish and Arab coexistence cannot come without equality. The gateway for peace is equality, and that is in the best interest of everyone. We (Arabs) learned democracy and human rights in Israel. We learned human dignity in Israel and we believe what we learned. These values come from my own Israeli educational system, and I want them for myself.”  
Unholy Alliance of Religion and State Power  
More and more American Jews are slowly coming to realize that, when it comes to religious freedom and to treatment of minorities, Israel is not simply the democratic society it presents itself as being, and is promoted as being by its American friends.  
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, writing in The Forward (Sept. 13, 2013) states that, “Israel’s founders did not envision a situation where an Orthodox establishment would regularly denigrate and delegitimize the practices of the majority of Jews worldwide. Rather, they saw religion mostly through the prism of a secular pioneering vision, presuming that religious commitments would either die out or be kept alive by a tiny, unobtrusive portion of society. They were wrong.”  
Today, writes Jacobs, “Orthodox Judaism is a powerful, coercive political force in Israel. Religion should never be given political power, nor should the state be given religious authority in Israel. Judaism and democracy are both harmed by this unholy alliance … .the Orthodox establishment portrays Judaism as an unbending ritual life, rarely invoking the Jewish imperatives to protect the stranger, care for the poor and create a society based on core Jewish values of compassion, justice and righteousness. How ironic that the Jewish state is the only democratic state in the world where a non-Orthodox rabbi cannot perform a legal marriage, and where a non-Orthodox congregation has to struggle with the state even to obtain the right to build a house of worship … Israel is the only state where a Jewish woman is imprisoned for praying the Sh’ma out loud while wearing a tallit.”  
Least Free Society for Non Orthodox Jews  
American Jewish organizations, which promote separation of church and state in the United States, and have led court actions even against voluntary, non-sectarian prayer in our public schools, are largely silent when it comes to the lack of religious freedom in Israel for non-Orthodox forms of Judaism which, in fact, are practiced by the majority of American Jews. Are they in favor of religious freedom only in societies in which Jews are a minority? Unlike Jefferson, Madison, and Roger Williams, among others, who advocated religious freedom and separation of church and state in our own country as a matter of principle, Jewish leaders seem prepared to accept — and to promote and financially support — a society in Israel in which non-Jews are second class citizens and in which American values of equality and religious freedom are rejected. For non-Orthodox Jews, Israel remains the least free society in the Western world. It should be high on the American Jewish agenda to move Israel on the path to genuine pluralism and religious freedom. At this time, sadly, it is not. •  

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