Op-Ed: Israel must break growing stranglehold of religion


JERUSALEM (JTA) — How does it happen that thousands of Israelis travel each year to Cyprus and Eastern Europe to get married? Is this an Israeli custom, to elope? Not at all.

Hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens cannot marry in Israel due to state law, including numerous Russian olim, all non-Orthodox converts to Judaism and native-born Israeli Jews who want an egalitarian marriage ceremony. Israeli democracy is enlightened and progressive in most respects, but in the area of religious freedom it lags all Western democracies.

The increased stranglehold of religion on the state has a dire impact on Israel today. That’s why we recently launched Hiddush, which in Hebrew means innovation and renewal. It is also the acronym of the Hebrew words “freedom or religion and equality,” as we hope to realize the promise of Israel’s Declaration of Independence to “uphold freedom of religion and conscience and ensure complete equality of civil and political rights to all, irrespective of religion.”

As a transdenominational advocacy and public education organization comprised as a partnership between Israeli and world Jewry, our aim is to enhance all of the important efforts already under way in this arena by bringing together Israelis and world Jewry from all walks of life.

Israeli religious freedom and equality should be of communitywide concern. All forces in our community in Israel and the United States, especially those committed to the diversity of the Jewish people and to civil liberties, should make this a high priority. That’s why we expect the issue to gain the attention it deserves from Jewish federations, communities and advocacy organizations across the U.S. 

Practically from day one of the state’s existence, politicians cut deals that undermined religious freedom at the expense of the majority of Israelis. This stranglehold has stifled Jewish creative religious expression. It’s also a threat to Israel’s economy and democracy.

Israeli and world Jewry cannot accept the second-class status of our own converts or the repeated decisions of state-sponsored rabbinic courts that retroactively nullify Orthodox conversions for “insufficient ritual observance.” Hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens are denied the basic civil right of marriage. Thousands of women struggle to gain their freedom from unsuccessful marriages. A growing number of public bus lines relegate women to the back of the bus in the name of religion.

Even as we write, the Knesset is deliberating on a “civil union” bill that would provide couples with an alternative to legal marriage containing some of the civil features of marriage. This would be available only to couples in which both the man and woman (it is not intended for same-sex couples) do not belong to any religious community or have any religious status, intentionally preventing any Jew from entering into a “civil union.”

Rather than offering freedom of marriage, as the majority of Israelis desire, it would further undermine the Russian olim, Jews by choice and many others. One’s status would remain beyond the marriage itself, even in ID cards, creating a cast of “untouchables” who can only marry among themselves. We plan to call on Israelis and world Jewry to voice their concern to let the Knesset lawmakers know that this is unacceptable.

Israel is an attractive place for investors now, in large part because of its educated work force. But as Diaspora Jewry is asked to step up its financial support of Israel, it cannot remain oblivious to the urgent warnings of senior Israeli economists that point to the threat to Israel’s economic viability if the current policy of huge financial allocations to the haredi community is maintained. Studies have found that fervently Orthodox men’s avoidance of joining the Israeli job market costs Israel between 5 billion to 15 billion shekels annually — about $1.33 billion to $4 billion. Two-thirds of haredi men in Israel refuse to enter into the work force but would rather live on public support.

Nothing in the Torah prohibits a religious man from providing for his family with dignity; indeed, fervently Orthodox Jews in the United States and England work at twice the percentage of their counterparts in Israel, since they can’t count on government subsidies. Most fervently Orthodox schools in Israel teach simple mathematics and no English, science or civics. This dooms their graduates to lives of poverty and dependence. Moreover, if this state of affairs continues, Israel’s economy could reach a third-world level within 10 years.

Israelis want change. Israeli pollster Rafi Smith recently completed a large-scale public opinion survey commissioned by Hiddush showing that 83 percent of Israelis maintained that freedom of religion and conscience should be upheld in the State of Israel. But change will not occur by itself.

In the past, our community has demonstrated its ability to achieve the toughest of goals. Together we can make the promise of Israel’s Declaration of Independence for equality and freedom of religion and conscience a reality.

(Rabbi Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi based in Jerusalem, is president and CEO of Hiddush. Stanley Gold, the chair of Hiddush, is president and chief executive officer of Shamrock Holdings Inc., a privately owned Burbank, Calif.-based investment company.)

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