Israel’s next government must ensure religious freedom

Israel’s Declaration of Independence declares equality for all: A message from the Jewish Pluralism Legal Action Network

September 22, 2019

To the leaders of the parties working to form the new government following the elections for the 22nd Knesset:

As Jewish North American lawyers, judges, and legal scholars, we write to you with deep respect for the foundational principles of the State of Israel. Though we hold differing political and religious views, we stand united in our support for the State of Israel, its strength and well-being, and its bonds with world Jewry. The results of the September 17, 2019 elections have reaffirmed the electorate’s commitment to Israel’s founding democratic principles of freedom, equality, and the rule of law. Still, the task of forming a government fully committed to those principles remains challenging.

The recent elections prove that the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews support religious freedom and equality. We hope that Israel’s political leaders will respect the voice of Israeli voters, which is echoed throughout the Jewish world. We write to add our voices to this desirable path.

On July 15, 2019 the Pew Center published its annual “Restrictions on Religion” report. This report placed Israel in an unenviable position on the list of the most religiously restrictive countries in the world. It also ranked Israel as the country with the fifth-highest level of “social hostilities related to religious norms.”

As promised in its Declaration of Independence, Israel is dedicated to ensuring “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” and to upholding “freedom of religion conscience…” The realization of these aspirations requires an independent judicial system and deep-rooted respect for the rule of law. Seeing that these very core foundations of a healthy democracy are challenged by some in Israel, we call upon you at this critical time to ensure that the following core principles are incorporated into the platform of the next government, and to publicly:

Confirm your commitment to religious freedom and equality;

Reject efforts that would diminish the independence and integrity of the Israeli Supreme Court, the cornerstone of Israel’s democracy;

Safeguard civil rights and human dignity.

We urge you to forcefully reject attempts, urged by the leadership of the ultra-Orthodox parties in order to perpetuate and entrench the phenomena described in the Pew report, to undermine the Supreme Court’s role in exercising judicial review.

We specifically urge you to oppose the following trends that run counter to Israel’s foundational commitment to democracy and equality:

The ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s exclusive control of all Jewish marriage, divorce, burial and conversion in the country, as well as the absence of civil marriage for both Jews and non-Jews. This state of affairs has resulted in hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who cannot marry; “chained” women who are “sentenced to marriage,” unable to obtain a get from their husbands; and many Israelis forced to marry according to Orthodox rites against their beliefs.

Pressure placed on government officials to defer to religious authorities or doctrines, as described in the Pew report. The coalition agreement, which was about to be executed in April, had included an explicit submission of the authority of the minister overseeing permits for public works on the Sabbath to the Chief Rabbinate. The State cannot and should not cede its authority over public matters to religious authorities.

Denying recognition of non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox conversions in Israel and the Diaspora.

Preventing freedom of worship at the Western Wall plaza for women and the non-Orthodox religious streams.

Perpetuating the avoidance of army or civil service by tens of thousands of Yeshiva students.

Denying equal rights to members of the LGBTQ community.

Violating the core principle of gender equality.

The Supreme Court’s recognition and protection of core values of democracy and equality have been cited as the reasons behind efforts by extremist religious groups to curtail the authority and independence of Israel’s Supreme Court. If these extremist voices are allowed to prevail, it will not only undermine religious freedom and equality in Israel, but also erode basic principles of democracy, thus widening the rift between Israel and world Jewry, and harming Israel’s standing and reputation among the family of nations.

We therefore call on you to:

Make clear to the Israeli public and world Jewry that you are committed to the full realization of Israel’s Declaration of Independence regarding freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and equality for all.

Reject steps aimed at curtailing the authority of the Supreme Court or eroding its independence.
The next few weeks may shape the Jewish State for decades. The time to act for the unity of the Jewish people and securing Israel’s democratic values is now.

Sincerely,

Peter Buchsbaum
Superior Court of N.J./Ret.
Board Member, WUPJ North American Advisory Board
JPLAN Co-Chair

Rabbi Uri Regev
CEO, Hiddush
JPLAN Co-Chair

Mark S. Anshan
Barrister and Solicitor
JPLAN Co-Chair

David Leit
Partner, Lowenstein Sandler LLP

Stephen Greenwald
Board Member, American Association
of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists

Affiliations are for identification purposes only

About the Author
Peter Buchsbaum is a graduate of Cornell University and Harvard Law School. He clerked for Joseph Weintraub, Chief Justice of NJ and served as a Judge of the NJ Superior Court from 2004 to 2013 after a career as prominent municipal land use lawyer. Peter was listed in Who's Who in America for 25 years. Today, he sits on the Board of Trustees for Har Sinai Temple in Pennington, NJ; and he is a co-founder of J-PLAN (the Jewish Pluralism Legal Action Network), which advocates for marriage equality in Israel.
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