Two years ago, I spent a month working with Rabbi Uri Regev and Hiddush: Freedom of Religion and Equality, the group he heads, on the right to marry in Israel. This experience led me to research the role of the Israeli Supreme Court in maintaining a boundary between civil rights and religious law in the Jewish State. It also prompted my helping to form, with the indefatigable Uri, a new organization called J-PLAN, the Jewish Pluralism Legal Action Network. The raison d’etre for this new group? To create a network of lawyers in North America who would raise their voices against assaults on religious pluralism in Israel. It would respond to insults shouted against Reform, Conservative, and, increasingly, Modern Orthodox Jews who contest the stranglehold exercised by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel over many social issues such as marriage, divorce, conversion, access to funerals, adoptions and service in the military.
I had hoped that responses by lawyers in North America could constructively aid debate in Israel on these matters. We cannot tell Israelis what to do; that would be intrusive and insulting, as well impossible. Yet we have the perspective of over 200 years of experience in constitutional litigation that could be of use to our colleagues in Israel on issues of personal freedoms and civil rights. For example, in dealing with the movement by haredi parties to override Supreme Court rulings on conversions and army service, we can point to the blockage of similar attempts in the United States to limit our Supreme Court’s jurisdiction over school prayer, flag burning, etc.
Unfortunately, we have run into burnout here in organizing North American lawyers to respond to assist our opposite numbers in Israel. And a significant amount of that jaded response derives dissent over Israel’s actions in the Territories, which J-PLAN’s agenda does not cover. So the task becomes in part convincing people to advocate for civil rights in Israel while the issues in the West Bank and Gaza remain unresolved. We must ask, do objections to Israel’s conduct in the Territories warrant abstention from engagement with other social and civil rights issues there.
The answer to me is that engagement with Israel remains urgent. First, every nation has warts. We should not abjure criticism of one shortcoming because there may be others. Would it have made sense to ignore the plight of poverty stricken garment worker Jews in the lower East Side in 1915 because America then tolerated racism throughout our country and turned a blind eye to lynching, physical intimidation and deprivation of voting rights in the South.
I was just at the LBJ ranch in Texas and listened to tapes of Martin Luther King speaking on the telephone with President Johnson in the friendliest tones about passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. Later, Dr. King came to view the Vietnam War as immoral, and spoke out against it, thus alienating Johnson. Yet he also continued to advocate for the poor notwithstanding his estrangement from the Johnson Administration. He was killed in Memphis as a result of his anti-poverty campaigning. Likewise, continued support for civil rights, for instance, for Israeli women who can’t legally divorce, should not be put on hold unless Israel withdraws from the West Bank.
Today, we have the best opportunity in years to organize around religious pluralism. The attempt to create a coalition after the Knesset elections, this spring, failed precisely because of a dispute over haredi domination of a potential new coalition. Because of this impasse, we have the best chance in years for a new governing coalition that will not dominated by religious hard liners. That occurred in 2013, and it could be replicated in the September elections. The advocacy of pluralism at the core of JPLAN’S mission has its best chance in years of succeeding over the next three months. Now is most certainly not the time to remain aloof from Israeli civil rights issues.
Even though, as Israeli Justice Emerita Dahlia Dormer has said, the Courts cannot save us from ourselves, the Supreme Court can make a difference inside the Green Line and in the Territories. In fact, it does now possess the right to hear human rights petitions from the Territories. Occasionally, it does intervene. Its independence and its power to decide human rights issues are at stake in the September election. The religious parties in particular would like to curtail it by allowing a simple majority of the Knesset to overrule its decisions. Over 200 Israeli lawyers have already protested this potential incursion on the independence of the Court. North American lawyers and jurists should join them in defending the rule of law in our Jewish state. Abstention from the debate, remaining silent now, constitutes surrender to the most reactionary political forces in Israel Only by defending the rule of law is there any chance that it will be help in future events both within Israeli and the West Bank.
So let us raise our voices, speak out for openness in Israeli society through J-PLAN, email@example.com or otherwise. As difficult as it is, it is our our responsibility to the Jewish State and to World Jewry. Even though we may never see this work reach fruition, as the Pirke Avot tells us, we cannot desist from the task.