Michael Boyden

Religious pluralism in Israel? Only with pressure from abroad

only pressure from the outside will break the country's orthodox stranglehold

As Jewish leaders gathered in Baltimore MD for the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, the largest annual gathering of the North American Jewish community, discussions focused, among other issues, upon the lack of religious freedom in Israel.

The delegates, who came mainly from Reform and Conservative congregations, are acutely aware that the Jewish State has not lived up to the ideals expressed in its Declaration of Independence envisioning “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” and ”freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

The stranglehold imposed by the orthodox Chief Rabbinate on Israel’s Jewish population in matters related to marriage and divorce is unparalleled in any Western country. Even when we bury our dead we are forced to make do with an orthodox funeral unless we pay huge amounts of money to avail ourselves of a kibbutz cemetery, or are fortunate enough to live in one of the few towns, such as Beersheba and Kfar Saba, in which so-called “alternative cemeteries” have been established.

It is not only that religious coercion is exercised in matters of marriage and divorce, Shabbat observance and the like. Women cannot pray at the Western Wall in the manner that they would wish and the Reform and Conservative movements are denied equal religious rights and public funding.

While these and other examples of religious discrimination will be bemoaned by the speakers and delegates in Baltimore, their voices will go unheard in Israel as Palestinians launch missiles against Sederot and Ashkelon and army posts are bombarded by the Syrians in the Golan Heights.

Such attacks only serve to strengthen the almost foregone conclusion that Prime Minister Netanyahu will be called upon to form Israel’s next government following elections in January.

As currently, his coalition government will no doubt also include Shas, United Torah Judaism and Habayit Hayehudi, which together hold no less than 19 of the 120 seats in the present Knesset.

Neither the Right nor the Left is capable of forming a government without the support of the religious parties. The only ways to break that stranglehold would be through electoral reform or by the forming of a broad coalition of non-religious parties.

Unfortunately, neither of these two options is conceivable in the foreseeable future. Indeed, past experience would suggest that the non-religious parties are unwilling or incapable of weaning themselves from their dependence upon the religious parties when it comes to forming a government.

Given Israel’s security and economic challenges, social and religious issues are invariably placed on the back burner when it comes to election time. However much the General Assembly delegates may bemoan this sorry state of affairs, nothing is going to change here until they start using the big stick. My own experience on the municipal front in Israel is that there is nothing like concerted pressure from our friends in North American when it comes to forcing city officials to respect the rights and needs of all religious streams.

In an entirely different context, the European Central Bank has forced the Greek government to take unpalatable steps to bring about economic reforms as the price for a bailout. Is it too much to hope that North American Jewry will employ similar tactics when it comes to coercing Israel to live up to the ideals upon which it was founded?

About the Author
Made aliyah from the UK in 1985, am a former president of the Israel Council of Reform Rabbis and am currently rabbi of Kehilat Yonatan in Hod Hasharon, Israel.