Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

In the Middle East's "Only Democracy," Some Jews Are More Equal Than Others

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

In the Middle East's "Only Democracy," Some Jews Are More Equal Than Others

Article excerpt

ISRAEL presents itself, and is presented by its most fervent admirers, as the Middle East's only Western-style democracy.

It's true, of course, that Israel's Jewish citizens enjoy an elected government, free speech and open debate. When it comes to freedom of religion in the Jewish state, however, a far different picture emerges. For non-Orthodox Jews, Israel provides very little religious freedom at all. Reform and Conservative rabbis cannot perform weddings or funerals. Their conversions are not recognized as legitimate. Since Israel is not interested in its non-Jewish citizens-its goal being, of course, to have none-Christians are allowed to practice any branch of Christianity, and Muslims may be Sunni or Shi'i. But Jewish Israelis can practice only Orthodox Judaism. Indeed, Israel is a Jewish 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," declared Rabbi Maya Leibovitch, the spiritual leader of Jerusalem's Reform Congregation Kehilat Mevasseret Zion. The bond between Orthodoxy and government, she noted, has only tightened since the early 1990s.

Reform and Conservative Jewish Israelis continue to wage an uphill battle to gain equal footing with the Orthodox, explained Rabbi Leibovitch. The fight for equality, she observed, has sharpened one of the Jewish state's numerous paradoxes. "I feel ashamed that the only place where you cannot choose your rabbi and congregation," she declared, "is in Israel."

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 on her first visit to Israel she was a Catholic, she moved there 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.

According to 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, "In every other Jewish community in the world, Ilana is Jewish. Not in Israel....Recently, the Justice Ministry issued new protocols...that demand an 18-month residency and a formal curriculum of study for converts abroad who want to come live here....Civil bureaucrats are seeking to impose their will and standards on Diaspora Jewry, challenging the autonomy of Diaspora communities."

"Jewish In Tel Aviv, Gentile In Ashkelon," an article in the Feb. 12, 2010 issue of The Forward, reports on the case of Alina Serjukov from Russia: "In Tel Aviv, where she works, Alina Serjukov is Jewish. In Ashkelon, where she lives, she's considered a gentile. Alina discovered her strange predicament in the run-up to her Jan. 14 wedding, when she and her husband attempted to register their upcoming marriage with the local rabbinate. But the official rabbi in Ashkelon refused to accept that she is Jewish, even though a regional rabbinical court, part of a network of such courts headed by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, had written to confirm that she had a valid conversion to Judaism and should be considered Jewish."

Because Alina's mother was not Jewish, Alina signed up during her army service for a conversion course run by the Israel Defense Forces and accredited by the state's Orthodox-run Conversion Authority. When the nine-month process was completed, Alina assumed that her Jewishness would never be questioned. Explaining that "[a]ll marriages between Jews in Israel must be solemnized by an Orthodox rabbi," The Forward reported: "The town's official rabbi, Yosef Chaim Blau, said he refused to accept the legitimacy of Alina's conversion because he did not believe she was observant at the time of her conversion. …

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