The Supreme Court challenges the Rabbinate

By an overwhelming margin of eight to one, the Israeli Supreme Court has belatedly but boldly challenged the blatantly unfair monopoly the Orthodox rabbinate has held regarding officially recognized conversions in Israel.

On March 1, Chief Justice Esther Hayut ruled that non-Jews who convert to Judaism in Israel through the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism must be recognized as Jews under the Law of Return and are therefore entitled to Israeli citizenship.

This landmark verdict comes on the heels of a previous court decision, which recognized non-Orthodox conversions outside of Israel.

The latest ruling is vitally important.¬†As opposition leader Yair Lapid correctly noted, Israel is ironically the only democracy where Jews are not granted full freedom of religion. “Israel must have complete equality of rights for all streams of Judaism — Orthodox, Reform or Conservative,” he said. “We all need to live here together with tolerance and mutual respect.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the U.S.-based president of the Union for Reform Judaism, spoke for many when he expressed the hope that the precedent set by the court will “lead to further recognition of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel.”

Unfortunately, this scenario may not come to pass due to the formidable forces arrayed against it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s dependent on ultra-Orthodox parties to build his coalitions, tellingly declined to comment on the issue. But one of his chief lieutenants in the Likud Party, Miki Zohar, denounced the high court’s ruling as “scandalous,” thereby squarely placing the Likud in the ultra-Orthodox camp.

Predictably enough, Naftali Bennett, the modern Orthodox leader of the far-right Yamina Party, lambasted the ruling, claiming disingenuously that the high court has no business “intervening in government decisions.”

Bennett’s blast, the latest attempt by right-wing politicians to undermine the judiciary and rule of law in Israel, was echoed by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party and a member of Netanyahu’s cabinet. Deri bitterly characterized the court’s decision as “a mortal blow to the Jewish character of the state” and promised to introduce legislation to overturn it.

Responding to the ruling, the chief Orthodox rabbis of Israel, Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau, revealed their true colors by flinging gratuitous insults at the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism.

Calling for legislation to override the court’s verdict, Yosef declared that conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis are nothing but “a forgery of Judaism.” Lau said that people who submit to Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel would not be considered Jews. “No High Court decision will change this fact,” he added contemptuously.

It’s crystal clear that the Israeli rabbinate will fight tooth and nail to maintain the religious status quo in an effort to delegitimize and sideline the Reform and Conservative movements. The power they wield is disproportionate, unfair and intolerable.

This outmoded and broken system, which was inaugurated by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, has outlived its usefulness and should be scrapped so that every Jew in Israel is completely equal.

The Israeli Supreme Court has courageously signaled that the time for change has arrived, but the Orthodox rabbinate and its temporal allies are fighting back hard to block the path toward real and lasting reform.

It will take a strong and progressive prime minister of genuine conviction to right the wrongs that afflict Israel. Netanyahu, a power-hungry, self-entitled and corrupt prime minister, is clearly not the man for the job.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal, SheldonKirshner.com
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