Religious freedom is, has been, and always will be a cornerstone of Western democracies, in general, and Israel, in particular. Since the historic day Israel declared its independence 68 years ago, Israel has been a Jewish and democratic state. As we all know, attaining this state was far from easy. Turning this dream into a reality cost us thousands of lives, sons, daughters, livelihoods, and much more.
As a Jew, I understand oppression. Living in Israel, I haven’t suffered much oppression personally, relative to my ancestors, but it is so ingrained in our historic narrative that it’s almost as if it’s a memory of mine. I remember the Greeks not allowing us to study or practice our religion from the story of Hanukkah. I remember the British Mandate of Palestine, where many religious and national restrictions were legislated against us. One such restriction was a law forbidding Jews from blowing the shofar, praying loudly, or bringing in a Torah scroll into the Western Wall.
So many of our national stories and narratives share this theme: people trying to dictate to us how to act as a nation. Nations trying to tell us how to practice our religion, where, how loud, or if at all.
We didn’t give in.
In the story of Hanukkah, we continued studying in our study halls always ready to close our books and spin our dreidels if a Greek officer was coming.
During the British Mandate, from the year of the edict in 1930 to the creation of the state in 1948, the shofar was blown every single year at the end of Yom Kippur. In the words of Jacob Aharoni, who was the brave man who blew the shofar in 1938: “They asked me, ‘Are you willing to do this act at the Western Wall and be arrested?’ I said, ‘I’m going to do it! Of course. We swore to give our lives for the Jewish people.’”
Jews have a history of oppression and we have a history of defiance.
Last week, I filed a bill on the Knesset floor fighting for the same rights Jews have fought for for millennia. Fighting for what Jacob Aharoni fought for in 1938. Fighting for our religious freedom and respect of our practices in our holy places.
I called for the acceptance and recognition of more than just one stream of Judaism. As the old joke goes, “if you have two Jews you’ll have three synagogues: one for the Orthodox Jew, one for the Reform Jew, and one where neither of them would set foot.”
This old joke is both part of the beautiful and ugly sides of our religious culture: Our acceptance of other streams of Judaism as Jews, but refusal to pray with them.
And I’m not asking that to change. I believe that everyone has not only the right to practice their religion as they see fit, but a moral duty to themselves not to compromise on the religious beliefs they live by.
I’m not asking for practitioners of Orthodox Jewry to give up on that. What I am asking is for the state to recognize that Orthodox religious practice is not the only valid way to practice as religious Jews.
I’m asking for our state to recognize the Jewish practice that most Jews practice worldwide. I’m asking that our state accept that most of the Jews around the world and within Israel want to see their holy sites accept women as equals, allow women to hold and read from Torah scrolls, blow the shofar, and pray with men as equals.
Not only does the current practice go against what I see as a Jewish state, it most definitely goes against what is seen as a democratic state in which freedom of religious practice is a must.
A democratic state that allows men but doesn’t allow women to pray loudly in public spaces? A democratic state that permits men the use of state-owned religious objects, but doesn’t permit its use for women? A democratic state that tells religious people how to sit during prayer if you want “equal” use of the public spaces?
It is appalling to me that Israel, of all states, is a state that doesn’t recognize this. That chooses to force the religious practices of a minority into public and holy places of the majority.
After years of religious oppression and coercion from other state powers, the Jewish nation finally has sovereignty over itself. No longer should we be told how to practice our religion. No longer should we be told there’s just one way to pray. No longer should we feel unequal in our shared holy spaces.
I call on the government to recognize that no stream of Judaism has a monopoly on religious practice. That Judaism and religious Judaism doesn’t belong to one but to many. That we all have a right to practice our Jewry and all as equals.
To end with a quote from our Declaration of Independence. “The state of Israel… will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion…it will guarantee freedom of religion…and culture; [and] it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.”