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The Chief Rabbinate of Israel vs. the Jews

Turning 1.2 million Israelis with FSU origins into a state-sanctioned punching bag is intolerable, and calls for radical and immediate change
Illustrative. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau (L) and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef convene an emergency meeting against a new proposal to overhaul the conversion to Judaism system in the country on June 3, 2018. (courtesy, the Chief Rabbinate spokesperson)
Illustrative. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau (L) and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef convene an emergency meeting against a new proposal to overhaul the conversion to Judaism system in the country on June 3, 2018. (courtesy, the Chief Rabbinate spokesperson)

The abusive diatribe recently leveled by Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef against Israeli immigrants from the former Soviet Union is merely a symptom, not the problem itself. The real problem is that the Chief Rabbinate, headed by Rabbi Yosef together with his Ashkenazi counterpart Rabbi Lau, makes life difficult for this immigrant population on a daily basis, applying an extremely stringent halakhic approach on matters such as issuing marriage licenses, establishing an individual’s status as a Jew, and conversion. It works to prevent them from becoming part of the Jewish people, and makes Judaism seem loathsome to them. Even if the chief rabbi is willing to recant his appalling words, the members of this immigrant community — many of them committed Zionists and lovers of the State of Israel, no less than he is — will still feel that they are second-class citizens and second-class Jews. Only by making significant reforms in the various institutions operated by the Chief Rabbinate, or by removing them from under the rabbinate’s aegis, will the much-needed changes be achieved.

There are currently around 1.2 million Israelis whose origins lie in the former Soviet Union (FSU). Of these, some 450,000 are defined as having “no religion,” though some among them consider themselves to be Jewish, and some are indeed halakhically Jewish, though they are not recognized as such. The vast majority of this immigrant community, both “recognized” and “unrecognized” Jews, are Israelis in every respect. They study in the state public school system, serve in the IDF, and bear the burdens of Israeli life on a daily basis. Nevertheless, the Chief Rabbinate views them with a suspicious eye, and, in every interaction, treats them with nothing but mistrust. Even those belonging to the great majority of this group — that is, those who are officially recognized as Jewish — are viewed by the Chief Rabbinate as undesirable “goyim” — non-Jews — until proven otherwise, in all matters pertaining to marriage, conversion, and burial.

As is well known, there is no option for civil marriage in Israel. In effect, the only way for Jews to marry is via a religious ceremony under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate. Over the last two decades, all attempts to remedy this offensive state of affairs have been met with fierce opposition from the Chief Rabbinate and from ultra-Orthodox politicians, who today — represent the same interests. The cruel result is that those Israelis defined as having “no religion,” as well as anyone wishing to marry one of them, simply cannot be married in Israel.

One possible solution for the “no religion” or “not halakhically Jewish” citizens of Israel is, of course, conversion. But here too, they come up against walls that the Chief Rabbinate is working hard to raise higher and higher, taking an extremely stringent halakhic line. This approach makes conversion almost impossible for these Israelis. In his shameful recent speech, alongside his abusive statements about immigrants, Chief Rabbi Yosef also railed against strictly Orthodox rabbis and judges, who, heaven forbid, have adopted a slightly less extreme stance on conversion. In some cases, courts administered by the Rabbinate (on the national level) have overturned conversions carried out by official Orthodox rabbinical courts (on the local level); on the grounds that these conversions did not meet the strict standards they define as essential. The outcome of this policy has been a continuing decline in the number of Israelis seeking conversion, and a growing disinterest among this population, regarding their Jewish-halakhic status and identity.

However, the Chief Rabbinate’s policies are just as harmful for the majority group — that is, FSU immigrants who are unequivocally defined as Jewish. According to the Rabbinate’s standard line, these Israelis are also to be considered non-Jews unless proven otherwise, and the burden of proof of their Jewishness rests on their soldiers Thus, when these citizens seek to be married by the Chief Rabbinate, they are frequently asked to provide proof that they are Jewish. Despite the fact that they immigrated to Israel, motivated by their Jewish identity, or were born here and grew up knowing that they are Jewish, a state-appointed agency is now casting doubt on their Jewishness. Each year, the Rabbinate opens up about 4,600 cases to investigate citizens’ Jewishness. In the vast majority of these cases, the request for recognition as a Jew is granted. As part of this process, Israelis who live their lives as Jews in every respect are required to prove their Jewishness, solely because their origins lie in the FSU. Obviously, this is a humiliating experience, which undermines these Israelis’ sense of identity, drives them away from Judaism, and deters them from wanting to have anything at all to do with the religious establishment in Israel.

Even in death, these Israelis are persecuted by the Rabbinate and its agencies. On the basis of the Jewish tradition stipulating that Jews must only be buried with other Jews, when FSU immigrants pass away, their family must prove their Jewishness; failing this, they are buried in a separate section of the cemetery assigned for “who-knows-whether-they’re-really-Jewish” citizens like them. Thus, they are second-class Jews not only in life, but in death, and forever after.

The discussion on amending the “grandchild clause” in the Law of Return (that allows the grandchild of a Jew to be granted Israeli citizenship) is certainly legitimate and important, but is irrelevant for the FSU immigrant community who already live here. The current situation, in which 1.2 million Israelis are branded by suspicions as to their Jewish and Israeli identity, and serve as a punching bag for public officials who are the formal representatives of Judaism in Israel, is intolerable, and demands radical and immediate change. One option is a dramatic reform of the Chief Rabbinate and all its institutions, and adopting a far more reasonable and accepting halakhic policy. Given that the chances for doing so are nil, it appears that there is only one way to go forward — that is, by completely divesting these powers from the Chief Rabbinate and establishing alternative institutions with a very different halakhic approach, allowing all Israelis, including those from the former Soviet Union, to be part of the Jewish people.

About the Author
Dr. Shuki Friedman is director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute and a lecturer in law at the Peres Academic Center.
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