Little Religious Freedom for Non-Orthodox Jews in the Self-Proclaimed "Jewish State"

By Brownfeld, Allan C. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October/November 2013 | Go to article overview

Little Religious Freedom for Non-Orthodox Jews in the Self-Proclaimed "Jewish State"


Brownfeld, Allan C., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


In July, David Lau was elected as Ashkenazi chief rabbi and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef as Sephardi chief rabbi. The two men were elected to 10-year terms by a body of state-salaried religious functionaries.

Rabbi Lau, favored by Prime Minister Binyamin 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 the Washington Jewish Week on Aug. 1. "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.'"

In Israel, there is less religious freedom for non-Orthodox Jews than anyplace in the Western world. Israel-and its American friends-regularly proclaim that it is 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.

The Declaration of Independence read in the great hall of the Tel Aviv Art Museum on May 14, 1948 was modeled on the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Declaration of Independence. It was, writes Hebrew University Prof. Ze'ev 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."

Israel's Declaration of Independence was "an act of public relations."

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 June 19, 1947 letter Ben-Gurion sent to Agudat Israel, an organization representing Orthodox Jews. 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 who wish to advertise themselves as kosher must be certified by the chief rabbinate.

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 local Orthodox chief rabbi. There is a national network of Beth 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.

Not only can Conservative and Reform rabbis not officiate at religious ceremonies, but any marriages, divorces and conversions they perform are not considered valid. …

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