Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October/November 2013, Pages 46-47

Israel and Judaism

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

By Allan C. Brownfeld

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. Conservative and Reform Jews have been prohibited from holding services at the Western Wall on the grounds that they violate Orthodox norms regarding the non-participation of women.

In 2010, a report released by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics showed that only 8 percent of Israel’s Jewish population defines itself as “ultra-Orthodox” and 12 percent as Orthodox. (The total of 20 percent Orthodox Israelis equals the percentage of Arab citizens of Israel.) Forty-two percent of Israelis describe themselves as “secular.”

Rabbi Uri Regev, who heads the Israeli organization Hiddush, which promotes religious freedom, declares: “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 percent 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. “The chief rabbinate is a completely foreign institution to Jewish history and tradition,” he points out. “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.”

Writing in the Fall 2013 issue of the Jewish Review of Books, Prof. Yehudah Mirsky of Brandeis University discussed the recent 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 over 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.”

The kind of religious leadership a chief rabbi such as David Lau can provide may be seen in his recent racist comment about basketball players at the Maccabian Games (see September 2013 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, p. 22). 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?” The term “kushim” is a derogatory slang term for blacks. The first Israeli 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 “kushim,” which is more akin to “nigger.” In Hebrew, the term for “black men” is “shchorim” or “anashim shchorim.” Israel’s Minister of 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, rather than promoting Judaism, the chief rabbinate corrupts it. Writing in the Aug. 2 issue of Mosaic, Moshe Koppel, who teaches at Bar-Ilan University 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 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.”

Many state-funded rabbis do not even recognize the legitimacy of Israel’s civil laws and judiciary. According to the outgoing Sephardi chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar,  for example, the state’s laws and courts are considered “gentile” and Israel should be ruled by the laws of the Torah, and the continuation of the existence of civil courts and laws represents “sitram Achra” (an Aramaic word for Satan).

Not Quite What Herzl Had in Mind

Israel’s theocracy is not quite what Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl, had in mind. In fact, Herzl had minimal interest in religious Judaism. Instead of a Bar Mitzvah, Herzl’s 13th birthday was advertised as a “confirmation.” According to Amos Élon, Herzl considered himself an atheist.

Herzl did not envision the inhabitants of his future Jewish state as being religious, but had respect for religion in the public sphere. In his novel Altneuland, all non-Jews have equal rights and an attempt by a fanatical rabbi to disenfranchise the non-Jewish citizens of their rights fails in the election, the center of the book’s main political plot.

Outlining his vision for a new Jewish state, Herzl 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 or descent or his religion, from participating in our achievements. For we stand on the shoulders of other civilized peoples...Therefore, we have to repay our debt. There is only one way to do it, the highest degree of tolerance. Our motto must therefore be, now and forever, ‘Man, you are my brother.’”

In his novel, Herzl 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 to him Zion was synonymous with humanitarianism and tolerance—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.”

When it came to the question of religion and the state, Herzl wrote: “Shall we end by having a theocracy? 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...They must not interfere with the administration of the state...Every man will be free and undisturbed in his faith or his disbelief...
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 Der Judenstaat, Herzl wrote 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.”

What would Herzl think of Israel’s current theocracy and its corrupt and intolerant chief rabbinate? It is highly unlikely that he would be pleased.

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 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 which rejects these basic values. That is why, for non-Orthodox Jews, Israel remains the least free society in the Western world. 

Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.

2020 Conference banner




2018barefoot to palestine
Amazon ($20.98); Kindle ($3.88

1983, Lebanon, U.S. Embassy bombed, 63 killed. Months later, Marine Barracks bombed, 241 killed.

1987, Cassie accepts a job teaching Shakespeare at a private academy near Princeton, to forget memories of her late husband killed at the barracks.

First day, she meets Samir, a senior whose parents were killed in the embassy attack: Cassie & Samir, forever linked.

As Cassie teaches Hamlet & Othello and rebukes advances from her unscrupulous dean, Shakespeare’s timeless themes of trust, betrayal, and hate ­become reality as the Palestinian-Israeli struggle destroys their lives. Powerful!

Amazon ($20.98); Kindle ($3.88