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US Jews must fight Israel’s policy on religious freedom

The limitation of religious freedom here is government policy, which makes it far more disturbing than the rabbis' most virulent anti-Reform statements

News of the historic decision to “recognize” Israel’s first non-Orthodox rabbis has surged throughout Jewish communities worldwide. The leadership of the Reform and Conservative movements has rightly celebrated this decision, but their joy has been countered by a slew of hateful pronouncements from many of Israel’s leading Orthodox rabbinic and political leaders. It’s important to review these pronouncements, understand their significance and context, and no less important, to weigh and assess the reactions of both Israeli and Diaspora leadership.

Let’s recap: Seven years after the Supreme Court petition was originally submitted, the Attorney General, with the Court’s blessing, finally gave instructions to grant state funding to 15 non-Orthodox rabbis. However, due to the vehement objection of the Shas minister of religious affairs to fund them, as thousands of Orthodox rabbis are funded, a deal was struck. These 15 rabbis would not be called “rabbis,” but rather “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities.” And, instead of being funded by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, their congregations will receive the comparable amount as a grant from the Ministry of Culture and Sport (!).

A 'mockery' of Judaism. MK Moshe Gafni (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A ‘mockery’ of Judaism. MK Moshe Gafni (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The following are some representative examples of the hateful reactions of the rabbis and politicians: Reform rabbis are “uprooters and destroyers of Judaism who have already brought terrible and horrific destruction on the Jewish People in the Diaspora;” The non-Orthodox movements “are poisoning the well of holiness” (Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar); non-Orthodox rabbis are “fakes” and “forgeries” (the chief rabbi of Kiryat Ono) and create “a one-way bridge from Judaism to Christianity” (city rabbi, unnamed); “Rabbis? What rabbis? We’re not talking about rabbis. This is a fraud!” (Rabbi Haim Druckman); Reform rabbis are “Christian priests who partner with the heretical [Israeli] legal system” (MK Yisrael Eichler); “The Attorney General’s office and the Supreme Court continue to lead an anti-Jewish policy” (Modern Orthodox MK Uri Ariel); “[Reform and Conservative Jews are] clowns for whom Judaism is a mockery” (MK Moshe Gafni, the chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee).

Israel’s top leadership, including Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Peres, remained silent. Chief Rabbi Amar even claimed in an interview that “The Prime Minister too agrees with us, except he is afraid of Reform Jews that may spoil his relationship with the President of the United States of America.” No denial has come from Netanyahu.

In an age of free speech, however hateful, such slurs should probably be expected. What may not be forgiven or ignored, though, is the policy, which is a direct translation of these sentiments. Legal discrimination on the basis of religion must not be allowed. The equal recognition of Reform and Conservative practices in matters such as marriage and conversion should be fought for with determination.

In this regard, let me point to two reactions that give us a sense of the direction of Diaspora Jewish communal leadership, and the striking difference between them:

The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) consciously chose to limit their response to the offensive language and disregard the larger discriminatory policy that emanate from these words:

JFNA condemns in the strongest terms the statement reportedly made by Israel’s chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar. It is a fundamental Jewish virtue to ‘love your fellow as yourself.’ We condemn comments that disparage fellow Jews and, in particular, well-established branches of Judaism that represent 80 percent of North American Jewry…. Statements such as those made by Rabbi Amar only serve to alienate our fellow Jews from our religion, our people and the Jewish State.

JFNA has been in the forefront of the charge against the attempts to pass a regressive “conversion bill.” Yet, the Federation system consistently refuses to address the fact that the very converts for whose rights the campaign was fought are still denied the right to marry in Israel. It seems clear, regrettably, that until the donor base of the JFNA, made up mostly of Reform and Conservative Jews, will demand that the JFNA address the discriminatory policy that underlies the language, its leadership will keep looking the other way.

On the other hand, the American Jewish Committee, a staunch supporter and defender of Israel in the international arena, recently underwent a historic change in the way it addressed this matter. In a recent dramatic resolution of its Board of Governors, the AJC addressed both the hate speech involved and the long overdue demand for religious equality and freedom:

Recent actions of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate threaten to divide the Jewish people and risk an anti-religious backlash against Judaism itself within the Jewish state. Of particular concern is the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate over issues of personal status – particularly marriage, divorce, burial, and conversion to Judaism. Moreover, various pronouncements of the Chief Rabbinate are anathema to many members of Diaspora Jewry and threaten to fray ties that bind all Jews wherever they may reside”. AJC called on the Government of Israel to grant equal legal status to rabbis and rabbinic rulings of all major Jewish denominations.

When I recently lectured at a JCC in the US, a local rabbi pointed out that an estimated one-third of the Jewish community in the city were intermarried and that one-third had a parent who was a non-Orthodox Jew by choice. That means, he stressed, that two-thirds of the children in that and similar communities would not considered Jewish by Israel’s “official rabbinate.” In the absence of full recognition of Reform and Conservative rabbis, coupled with the non-existence of civil marriage in Israel, none of them would be able to legally marry in the country, even though they would be eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return. This is a fact that the leadership of the Jewish community avoids discussing, let alone taking an active stand to change it.

Denouncing the language as was done by the JFNA may be a way to do “damage control,” but it avoids addressing the real issue of writing off the majority of the next generation in the Jewish community. It also fails to address the religious discrimination created by the Israeli government that is practiced against Israelis, olim from the former FSU and Ethiopia, women and others.

So long as those who are incensed by the flurry of slurs do not address the underlying policy ramifications, their vocal indignation is, at best, a way to vent frustration and appear responsive to a scandalous delegitimization of fellow Jews. Not acting against this systematic discrimination is shocking, especially knowing that the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis supports religious freedom. Until pressure is placed on the political leadership to transcend the cynical deal-making with the likes of the above-quoted hate mongers, Israel will remain the only democracy in the world that denies its Jewish citizens full religious freedom. It’s time to change this reality, not just clean up the language.

It’s time to act.

About the Author
Rabbi Uri Regev is one of Israel’s most prominent advocates for religious freedom. He currently serves as president of Hiddush- Freedom of Religion for Israel.