A vision for a Jewish and democratic state

An issue that has been simmering since Israel’s founding is the relationship between religion and state.

Put somewhat differently, this is about  what constitutes the proper balance required for Israel to be both a Jewish state and a democratic state. Most American Jews would wonder why this is an issue at all. Aren’t Jewish values supportive of democracy? Isn’t Judaism one of the most democratic expressions of religion?

In America this is true, because our various forms of Judaism have grown up in a democratic milieu that separates church and state and therefore are practiced on a voluntary basis. Orthodox Jews in America choose to be Orthodox. If they submit to the religious decisions of a particular rabbinic authority, they do so by choice, not because of any externally imposed obligation. And, it goes without saying, this is true of every American Jew who affiliates with any institution of the Jewish community.

Israel, however, inherited a system regarding religious matters that existed when Palestine, as the area was called before the establishment of the State of Israel, was part of the Ottoman Empire. Later, when it came under British mandatory administration, this system was maintained. According to this system, certain matters were handled by the civil administration but others were delegated to religious authorities: a chief rabbi, a member of a church’s hierarchy, or a Muslim mufti.

When the State of Israel was established, it maintained this division of governmental authority between the secular civil realm and the religious realm. Hence, today Israel has a chief rabbinate that always has been Orthodox. The extension of this is that Orthodox Judaism essentially is the state religion of Jewish Israel, although the overwhelming majority of the Jewish population of Israel is not Orthodox in either belief or practice.

State-backed religion of any variety has coercive power, and this is no less true of Israel’s Orthodox state religion. Theoretically, this power is limited to marriage, divorce, kashrut supervision, and burial.

As an example of this power, take the case of the rabbinate’s control over burial. Situations have arisen in which an Israeli IDF soldier, the child of Russian émigrés, is killed in action. Russian Jews often have difficulty proving their Jewish status to the rabbinate because of the high degree of intermarriage that occurred in the former Soviet Union, coupled with the loss or disappearance of documents that might prove the soldier’s mother was Jewish, the halachic standard for determining Jewish status. Since burial is up to the rabbinate, if it does not accept the soldier’s status as Jewish, he is likely to be buried in a non-denominational or other non-Jewish cemetery, despite having given his life for the Jewish State.

Add to this reality that so-called religious parties — that is the Orthodox political parties — have seats in the Knesset. These include nationalist Zionist Orthodox parties and non-Zionist charedi (“ultra-Orthodox”) parties. To their credit they have brought respect for Torah and halacha and a fealty to its teachers and authorities to the political arena. What is less important as part of their worldview, however, is a Western sense of democracy, especially when its values clash with what their communities consider to be the law or will of God.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s party has needed these right-wing partners’ support for his Likud party’s agenda. That support has been given with a price: religious or other legislation that is not supported by the majority of the Israeli population or endangers Israeli democracy.

For example, nationalist-religious Zionist parties and non-Zionist Orthodox parties joined hands to try to undermine the power of Israel’s Supreme Court. The religious claim was: How can a court of human beings override the law of God? The political objective was agenda-oriented: For the ultra-Orthodox, weakening the court meant no conscription of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students. For the national Zionist Orthodox, the attempts to limit the Supreme Court’s power was to prevent it from issuing rulings unfavorable to Jewish settlement beyond the Green Line.

This behavior has created a backlash that has brought religion and state issues to the very center of Israel’s two failed elections. Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid of the Blue-White party and Avigdor Liberman of Yisrael Beitenu all made it clear that they were not going to support a steady path to an Israeli theocracy.

The recent unity government negotiations failed at least in part because of Blue-White’s refusal to join a Likud bloc that included all the religious parties previously aligned with it. Liberman, whose Yisrael Beitenu party gained enough mandates to make him a kingmaker, got those mandates by demanding a stop to army exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students.

And so, the issue of how to balance religion and state, Judaism and democracy, has surfaced not as a swept-under-the-rug matter outweighed by security or economic concerns, but as an issue whose time has come.

But does any one of the various major political figures have a plan for how to balance the Jewish and democratic nature of the state? Probably not at this moment.

That is why this vision statement was created by American Orthodox Rabbi Marc Angel and Israeli Reform Rabbi Uri Regev. I am including the vision statement here, because it is so important:

PREAMBLE: The following statement is issued by a diverse group of Jews in Israel and the diaspora•, all of whom greatly admire and appreciate the tremendous achievements of the State of Israel. Israel is a remarkably dynamic democracy and creative society. Since its inception, it has sought not only to provide an independent state to a People that has been deprived of sovereignty for almost 2,000 years, but also to fulfill the values expressed in its Declaration of Independence — a State rooted in the precepts of liberty, justice and peace as taught by our prophets, guaranteeing freedom and equal entitlements and responsibilities to all of its citizens.

We come together to express our commitment to work towards the fulfillment of the promise of religious freedom and equal treatment. While appreciating the efforts of Israel to provide religious freedom to all its residents, the goal of providing total religious freedom remains to be achieved. This is a critical challenge facing Israel both as a Jewish and as a democratic state. We, who are committed to Israel’s growing strength and vitality, as well as its bonds with world Jewry, hold that this challenge can no longer be left to politics alone, and we will do our utmost, in partnership between Israelis and world Jewry, to address this challenge and help make it a reality.

As a Jewish State, Israel must foster the Jewish character of the State.

As a democratic State, Israel must grant equal rights to all of its citizens, regardless of their religious views or affiliations.

In order to achieve a Jewish and democratic state, faithful to both its Jewish heritage and to the principles of democracy, the following core principles of religious freedom and equal rights and responsibilities are essential:

1. The State of Israel must proudly insist on its Jewish identity and maintain a Jewish character for its public life e.g. proper respect for Shabbat and holidays; kashrut in its public institutions; teaching of Tanach and other key texts of the Jewish religious and cultural tradition, acknowledging and celebrating the richness and diversity of Jewish tradition.

2. The State of Israel must guarantee religious freedom and provide equal access to state services and funding to its Jewish and non-Jewish citizens.

3. The State of Israel must grant its citizens the right to choose their own religious leadership so that they are not compelled to adhere to a state-sponsored religious establishment. The state should not grant governmental authority to “Chief Rabbis” — whether on the national or local levels. Rather, each Jewish community must be free to employ the rabbis of its choice. The state must not be an official sponsor of any one particular religious movement, but must respect freedom and equal opportunity and responsibility for all its citizens.

4. Those who wish to adjudicate their cases before religious courts may do so on a private basis, with no governmental participation or interference. The state must not grant governmental authority or funding to religious courts.

5. The State of Israel must provide a system for marriage and divorce that allows citizens to be married in Israel in a religious or civil ceremony as they choose. When a Jewish couple opts to be married under charedi, Orthodox, Conservative or Reform auspices, or under civil authority, the couple will do so with the express legal stipulation that it will go to the same authority if the marriage fails and will be divorced under the aegis of that same authority.

6. Those who wish to convert to Judaism must have the right to undergo this process with rabbis of their choice, by rabbis who are duly ordained and recognized by their respective major religious movements. These conversions must be accepted as valid proof of Jewishness by the State of Israel, even as we respect the prerogative of the different religious groups to apply their own criteria for conversion.

7. In guaranteeing freedom and equality of opportunity for all its citizens, Israel must also ensure that all its citizens fulfill their civic responsibilities and share fairly and appropriately in military/national service, as well as the labor force, without religious, ethnic or gender discrimination.

8. Freedom of worship for members of all faiths at their holy sites has been a long-held right. In keeping with this core principle, regard for divergent practices and gender equality should be accommodated in the spirit of mutual respect and sensitivity.

Written by Rabbi Marc Angel, director, Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, and Rabbi Uri Regev, president of Hiddush — Freedom of Religion for Israel

• Those of us who are not citizens of Israel understand that basic decisions regarding the character of the state must ultimately be made by its citizens, but as Jews committed to a diverse Jewish community, both outside and inside of Israel, we seek to lend our support to this important endeavor.

This Vision Statement is presently taking the form of a petition to whatever Israeli government is formed, whenever it is formed. For this reason, Ruach Hiddush, a North American based organization that includes Jewish clergy of all denominations working toward religious freedom and equality in Israel, seeks individual and organizational signatories for the Vision Statement. The Vision Statement has been signed by approximately 2,000 individuals, many of them leaders in the Jewish community, and 30 major Jewish organizations from Israel and the diaspora.

If you wish to preserve Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state, this is the moment when there is a window of opportunity to guarantee this now and into the future.

Individuals and organizations are welcome to sign the Vision Statement.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Chernick holds a doctorate in rabbinic literature and semikhah from Yeshiva University, and he is the chair of the executive committee of Ruach Hiddush (Rabbis and Cantors for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel).He served as professor of rabbinic literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for forty years.He is an oleh hadash with continuing close ties to the United States. Rabbi Chernck regards himself as "a Jew for all Jews."
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