While the Reform and Conservative movements, Masorti Jews, have been the primary focus of the Roundtable, freedom of religion in Israel can be best measured by the treatment of the Karaite Jews.
Religious Services Minister David Azoulay’s (Shas Party) recent comment that he cannot consider a Reform Jew as Jewish has raised the question of Jewish diversity and the status of Jewish minorities in Israel. It has long been known that ultra-Orthodox Hassidic Judaism (the Haredi) is the official religion of Israel. Among the many streams and variations of Judaism, this movement alone receives public financing for its religious schools, controls the religious institutions in Israel, and has attempted to enforce its strictures in the laws of the State of Israel.
Diaspora Jews have complained about the lack of Jewish religious freedom in Israel. Organizations like Hiddush formed to represent the overwhelming number of secular Jews in Israel and to help them exercise their democratic right to govern their own country. Israel is the only country in the world wherein the Jewish institutions of state persecute other Jews.
In the aftermath of Azoulay’s comments, the government is gathering a roundtable intended to represent all Jewish streams. This roundtable is supposed to help improve Israel’s relationship with various Jewish movements that have been excluded from Israel’s religious institutions. So far, most of the attention has been focused on the Masorti Jews (Reform and Conservative), but other Jewish groups face significant persecution in the world’s only Jewish state. Israel is home to many Jewish groups, not just the Masorti. Israel’s Karaite Jews and Falashas (Beta Yisrael) also deserve representation at this roundtable as they are the true thermometres of religious freedom in Israel.
More than 12,000 Karaite Jews live in Israel today. There are 14 functioning Karaite synagogues, including Jerusalem’s oldest. Karaites are included in the Law of Return and like other Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) Jews were forced to flee Muslim countries. A few made their way to the United States, but the vast majority of the community chose to rejoin their Karaite brethren in Israel. Karaites have long been Zionist and have long desired a return to the Holy Land. Dr. Moshe Marzouk was a Karaite Jew who was executed for participating in a Mossad plot against the fascist Egyptian government of Gamal Abdul Nasser. He is regarded as a hero not only to Karaites but to all Israelis.
Karaite Judaism coalesced into a single movement about 1,200 years ago when Muslim authorities recognized that many synagogues were uncomfortable with rabbinic leadership. Under Islamic rule at the time each religious group governed itself, collecting special taxes and largely policing their own members. Obviously, this meant that Orthodox Christians could not be under the control of the Catholic Church and vice verse. Thus, the Islamic authorities took special care to make sure that each of these groups was happily governing its own members and keeping them in their place. It was also frequently the case that Islamic governments had to rely on highly educated and skilled non-Muslims to serve as bureaucrats and administrators.
Many Jewish congregations that had never adopted the Talmud and had refused to accept the idea that there was an Oral Law chaffed under the rabbinic, talmudic leadership. In fact, there is much precedent for observing the written law as written and little evidence for an oral tradition before the end of the Second Temple. On the contrary, no such concept can be found in the works of Josephus or Philo, and they often contradict modern talmudic interpretations. Not surprisingly, Judaism 2,000 years ago was very different from what it has become today.
There is substantial evidence that most Jewish movements followed only the written law in that time. The Tsadokim, the priestly family who are celebrated in the Tanakh and extolled by the Prophets, believed in following the one written Torah. In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, it is likewise clear that the Jews of that time followed only a written law: the phrase “as it is written” (Heb. Kakatuv) appears frequently in reference to Torah observance. The entire Torah was read to the congregation in an afternoon by Ezra and the scribes. The people easily understood it with but little explanation from the Levites.
For some time many scholars have confused Anan Ben David and his followers, the Ananites, with Karaite Judaism, but Karaite synagogues existed well before Anan. Anan’s interpretations were the ridicule of Karaite scholars, and his son would go on to lead the rabbinic yeshiva in Tiberius. Anan’s beliefs and interpretations are non-extant in modern Karaism.
In the Middle Ages, Karaite sages and scholars discussed and debated among themselves and with rabbinic scholars. Many of the documents in the Cairo Geniza are Karaite in origin. Scholars like Jacub Al-Qirqisani and Benjamin Nahawandi offer clever insight into the Torah and its study, as well as significant observations of the other religious movements in the Middle East in that time.
The Karaite understanding of the written Torah results from a highly skilled exploration of the entire Tanakh, a study of the ancient Hebrew language and other languages of the region, and offers a logical and scientific view of the religious law. An an example, Karaites hold, based upon the episode of the Daughters of Zelophehad, that women have a right to inherit. The story of Devorah demonstrates that women have an equal status in society. Karaite interpretations also offer a divorce right to women. Karaite interpretations, traditions, and practices are built on a careful understanding of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings.
In modern times, unfortunately, a number of Christian and even Muslim groups along with other non-Jews have taken up the word Karaite in many cases unaware that there is a real Karaite Jewish Community. This has led to several mistaken impressions about Karaite Judaism. Please be aware if you encounter people out there that call themselves Karaites to inquire of them if they are members of the Karaite Jewish Community.
Today’s Karaite Jews in Israel
In Israel today Karaites look and live as most Israelis do. They serve in the IDF, own businesses, and work in a variety of professions ranging from nuclear engineers and professors, to supervisors and laborers. As they are non-talmudic, Karaites do not answer to rabbinic authorities and have long sought the freedom to pursue their faith independently as Jews.
In Israel, Karaites have the ability to perform their own marriages, but intermarriage with non-Karaites is forbidden unless the Karaite swears off his or her faith; thus maintaining the same kind of persecution Jews faced under Islamic authorities. Rabbinic authorities have gone out of their way to make Karaite slaughter illegal, to try to shut them out of slaughterhouses, and have even sued to take possession of the 800 year-old Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem, the oldest continuously functioning synagogue therein. This persecution shows how terribly threatened rabbinic institutions are by the small Karaite community and its practices. Perhaps they fear the idea that there is a simpler, less misogynistic, and more original form of Judaism out there. Generally, the rabbinic authorities have the same goal that any men with power have: to gain more power. They cannot stand the idea that there are forms of Judaism beyond their yoke. But then, is that not also the basis of their complaint against Masorti Judaism?
Beta Yisrael (The Falashas)
It is important to note that Ethiopian Jews also never adopted the Talmud as part of their traditions and also eschew many modern Rabbinical interpretations. These are also African Jews which adds, unfortunately, a racial tint to the matter. Having arrived in Israel in great numbers from various operations to rescue them from persecution, Ethiopian Jews, who call themselves Beta Yisrael and are often also called Falashas, are a Jewish minority. It was announced recently that the rabbinic authorities want to take away the right of Ethiopian Jews to their ancient practice of continuing to be led by priests, Kohanim. They have also faced abuse by law enforcement, discrimination in cases of intermarriage with other Jewish groups, and general derision at the hands of Israeli religious officials.
The treatment of Karaite Jews and Beta Yisrael in Israel are the true thermometre of religious freedom. If the these communities face persecution, then Israel has no religious freedom. When they live and practice freely and without restriction or obstruction, then Jews in Israel are truly free. It is a sad reality that the Anglican Church, which has some 7000 congregants in the diocese that includes Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, holds greater rights and religious freedoms than several small movements of Israeli Jews. This is intolerable and cannot stand. The Karaites and Beta Yisrael need to be invited to the roundtable and the persecution of Jewish minorities in Israel must end.