Yonatan Gher
Director, Amnesty International Israel
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They came for a Conservative rabbi. Is now the time to speak out?

How much more will it take for liberal Jewish leadership to say enough is enough?
Rabbi Dov Haiyun, in a police car after being hauled in for questioning over his officiation of weddings outside the Chief Rabbinate on July 19, 2018. (courtesy)
Rabbi Dov Haiyun, in a police car after being hauled in for questioning over his officiation of weddings outside the Chief Rabbinate on July 19, 2018. (courtesy)

This morning, police interrogated Rabbi Dov Haiyun, a Conservative rabbi, for the suspected crime of conducting marriages.

A bit of context for those unfamiliar with Israel’s wedding laws: there is no civil marriage in Israel. Marriage in Israel can only be conducted for two (opposite-sex) members of the same faith, by their corresponding religious institution. For Jews, this authority is granted solely to the Rabbinate — a very Orthodox institution. Those who cannot get married in the Rabbinate — such as a kohen and a divorcee, a bastard (which in Judaism usually means someone born to a married woman by someone other than her husband), same-sex or interfaith couples — as well as those who choose not to, can get married abroad and their marriage will be recognized by Israel. This is due to the Hague Marriage Convention, which is how countries recognize each other’s marriages, to which Israel is a party.

Many of those who get married abroad choose to then have a wedding ceremony in Israel, which could be officiated by a non-Orthodox (such as Conservative or Reform) rabbi, by a secular-humanist wedding-officiator, by a celebrity or by a best friend — human or otherwise. It doesn’t matter; the ceremony is of absolutely no legal bearing.

Except now — apparently — it’s of legal consequence. The rabbinic court, whose standing is equal to a civil court, is of the opinion that conducting such ceremonies by non-Orthodox rabbis violates the law, and the police happily played along and conducted its interrogation.

This might be a good time to mention: I have thus far officiated at two wedding ceremonies, both beautiful events which I’m sure would have made the Rabbinate deeply uncomfortable. And I would do it again whenever asked, so they might as well come and arrest me now. Here’s evidence:

The writer (right) officiating a very happy wedding.

This all leads me to wonder, just how much more of this will it take before the liberal Jewish leadership will say that enough is enough? We have watched Netanyahu renege on the long-sought deal to create a pluralistic prayer area at the Kotel; we have seen Israel refuse to recognize Conservative conversions that were conducted in Uganda; and these are but some acute examples of the ongoing discrimination that the liberal Jewish streams experience in Israel.

And what about other issues liberal Judaism holds dear, such as this week’s law amendment that exacerbated the discrimination of LGBT parental rights? Or Israel’s abysmal treatment of its asylum-seekers? Or its passing of the Jewish nation-state law, increasing the discrimination of the Palestinian community. Or hosting Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on a state visit, including a tour of Yad Vashem, while completely ignoring everything Orban’s government is doing to diminish human rights and freedom of expression in Hungary.

Caring for Israel does not mean doing our government’s bidding. Often, as described in these examples, it requires the opposite. As former president Barack Obama put it:

To be a true friend of Israel, it is important to be honest about it.

It is time for the US Reform and Conservative leadership to start setting firm boundaries to our government. Prime Minister Netanyahu has proved time and time again that he is not driven by values, but by power. He struck a good deal with the UN regarding refugees, only to backtrack several hours later. He vowed in a video this week to support LGBT parental rights, only to vote against them the next day. He made a deal on liberal prayer at the Western Wall, only to cancel it due to coalition pressure. The only way we can stop all this deterioration and to start moving in a better direction is if we make Netanyahu realize that he has more to lose from us. And he does, if we really put our minds to it.

The picture above is of a Conservative rabbi in a police car, arrested for being a Conservative rabbi. What more does it take?

About the Author
The writer is the Director of Amnesty International Israel. Previously he was the Executive Director of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, Regional Communications Director of Greenpeace Mediterranean and Spokesperson for the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel. Born in New York, Yonatan grew up in Jerusalem, and now lives in Jaffa with his husband and two sons.
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