Israeli Religious Establishment Threatens Peace Agreement
On a U.S. visit in the summer of 1993, an Israeli rabbi spoke against what he said was lack of religious freedom in Israel, where only one branch of Judaism is recognized. If Israel does not become more open to other denominations, he warned, Jews could turn against Judaism and the Jewish state might cease being "Jewish."
Considering that most Israeli "Jewish" leaders are secular Zionists and a majority of Israel's "Jewish" citizens say they do not believe in God, some might argue that the rabbi's fears already have come to pass. Assuming, however, that Israel is, as it claims, an "authentic" Jewish state, based on the religion of Judaism, and inhabited largely by Jews, who determines who is an "authentic" Jew? The answer is that a select few Israelis, all male and all Orthodox, now hold that power.
Before the creation of Israel, which gave land to Jews but not to non- Jews, the question of "Who is a Jew?" was a pure and simple religious matter. As with a Christian accepting Christianity or a Muslim accepting Islam, proclaiming oneself Jewish meant accepting Judaism as a religious faith.
Today in Israel, however, it is not so simple:
Item 1: Twenty-year-old Lev Pisahov died in the line of duty in the uniform of the Israeli army. However, on the night the young immigrant from Azerbaijan was interred in Israel, religious authorities decided that, although he had said he was Jewish, he could not be buried alongside other Israeli soldiers who had given their lives for the Jewish state. His father was Jewish, they said, but his mother was not. As a result, initially his body was "buried alone, in a corner," according to newspaper accounts, far from the bodies of soldiers deemed "authentic" Jews.
Item 2: Olga Haikov, a 42-year-old mother who acquired Israeli citizenship when she and her husband emigrated from the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 1992, was one of two Israeli women killed in an attack on a Jerusalem bus in a hijacking attempt by Palestinians. The night before Haikov was to be interred, an anonymous phone caller to a burial organization claimed that, although her husband was Jewish, the slain woman was not. "Minutes before the funeral," reported the July 7, 1993 Washington Times, "rabbis decided to bury [Haikov] in a section set aside for people whose Jewishness is in doubt. "The report added that an Orthodox rabbi refused to pray over her grave since she could not be classified as an authentic Jew.
Item 3: A U.S. Reform Jew moves to Israel. He falls in love with another Reform Jew. Although they wish to be married in a Reform synagogue, Israeli law will not permit this.
Item 4: An American couple, longstanding Conservative Jews, move to Israel. He dies and his wife wants to have a Conservative rabbi pray over his grave. Israel will not permit this.
Item 5: An American Christian converts to Judaism in a Conservative synagogue, another American converts in a Reform synagogue. If they move to Israel, will either be recognized as "authentic" Jews? It could depend.
Since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, Israel's ultra-Orthodox leaders have increasingly gained power in religious as well as secular matters. Being "the established religion" of Israel, Orthodoxy permits no other interpretation of Judaism than its own.
The rabbi quoted at the beginning of this article, Ehud Bandel, spokesman for Conservative Judaism in Israel, warned that Orthodoxy was growing in strength in Israel, while the Conservative and Reform denominations, with which more than 60 percent of U.S. Jews identify, suffer from a lack of religious freedom.
"What is at stake in Israel is the Jewishness of the Jewish state," said Rabbi Bandel, the first native-born Israeli ordained as a Conservative rabbi. "Unless religious pluralism is recognized and adopted in Israel, we are facing a very dangerous situation and the unity of the Jewish people is threatened. …