What’s The ‘Jewish’ In Jewish State?


I could begin by saying the image in our own ad says it all. Some of you saw it — a New Israel Fund ad that ran last month featuring a photo of a poster in Jerusalem, defaced by ultra-Orthodox extremists because it featured a woman’s face.

The truth is, however, that as much as that ad brought a looming issue to public attention, I don’t think the actions of the fringe extremists in the ultra-Orthodox community “say it all.” Yes, there are attempts by some to define Jewish law so strictly, and interpret the mitzvah of modesty so stringently, that for the first time in history some Jewish women are essentially wearing burkas. Recent attempts by the Israeli ultra-Orthodox hierarchy to rescind conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis, on the grounds that the converts were not living up to the letter of Jewish law, strike most of us as wrong. And the notion of women being asked to sit in the back of public buses, for all of us who know the story of Rosa Parks, resonates strongly with the American Jewish community.

But the issues of religious pluralism, and what it means to be Jewish in a Jewish state, are far more complex than can be summed up in a one-page ad. Responding forcefully to religious extremism is important but is not the only answer to the concerns of most in the Jewish community about the nature of Judaism, Jewish identity and religious freedom in Israel.

Most important for Israel’s future is what in America we would call a constitutional issue. Israel has no civil sphere for personal issues like marriage, divorce and burial. All life-cycle events are under the control of religious authorities, not just for Jews but for Muslims and Christians as well. Thus, 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who pay taxes and serve in the Israeli Defense Forces — but who are not Jewish by the standards of religious law — cannot marry Jews in Israel. Jews with uncertain antecedents — a grandmother, for example, who converted in the Reform tradition back in the 1950s — can be excluded as well. Women whose husbands refuse them a divorce under religious law are agunot, “chained women,” who cannot remarry. And Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis have no legal standing in Israel, so secular and non-Orthodox Israelis must hire an officially sanctioned Orthodox rabbi to perform weddings and officiate at funerals.

Astoundingly, in the world’s only Jewish state, you cannot choose how to be Jewish.

The issue is not limited to the establishment of one denomination of Judaism over all others. In a state where citizenship is predicated on Jewish identity, the many meanings of the word “Jewish” get tangled with what it means to be Israeli. Many ultra-Orthodox do not see their fellow Israelis as real Jews and reject state authority when it contradicts their rabbis’ interpretation of Jewish law. Many secular and traditional Jews heartily resent the wholesale exemption from army service, and the high unemployment among the ultra-Orthodox. Indeed, the formation last week of a new governing coalition was predicated in part on a commitment by Prime Minister Netanyahu to address the Tal Law (which exempts ultra-Orthodox from army service).

And, of course, this being Israel, even issues of religious pluralism are entwined with the conflict between Israel and her neighbors and the now decades-old occupation and settlement enterprise. Haredi neighborhoods are getting crowded. One way of relieving that crowding is providing housing in the occupied territories. As this happens, some in the haredi community who once avoided weighing in on issues of war, peace and borders are now making common cause with the most hard-line in the religious-Zionist camp, further complicating the prospects for a two-state solution and for peace.

Smart people have spent a lot of time trying to unravel these issues for almost two generations, and there are certainly no simple answers. But from the standpoint of someone who has run a pragmatic organization that works toward religious pluralism in Israel, there are some immediate issues that need our attention.

First, something must be done about the monopoly held by the state rabbinic authorities and their courts on life-cycle issues. Conversion, marriage, divorce — these are the most personal of issues, and they are held hostage to a small group of men whose dictates are ever more extreme. In some cases the High Court has overturned rabbinic court decisions, but that is a long and laborious process. One thing the Knesset can do is ensure a broader and more modern representation on the rabbinic courts, and consider legislation that would reduce their power.

Next, the issues that here in the U.S. we call the “church-state relationship” need a frank airing. The mayor of Tel Aviv is campaigning to allow buses to run on Shabbat in his municipality. This makes sense. If you’re a non-observant Israeli who wants to get to your mom’s house and you don’t own a car, why should you have to pay for a taxi? And yet, there’s some presumption that in a Jewish state, public transportation should conform to Jewish law proscribing driving on Shabbat and holidays. This basic issue of fairness and freedom from religion can’t be ducked any longer. It requires honest debate.

Third, there has got to be zero tolerance, at the official level, for those who equate Jewish identity with racism, expropriation and exclusion. This phenomenon is so distasteful that most American Jews would rather not know about it. It includes rabbis on the municipal payrolls who were not removed from their jobs after they signed an edict saying that Jewish law forbids renting or selling property to non-Jews. It includes the settler rabbis contributing to a book that makes the case for the killing of non-Jewish children. It includes the radical yeshivot where students are learning the ultimate Commandment: settling and holding on to every inch of biblical Israel. In their universe, no other mitzvah is as important, even if keeping it means defying the state, the army, the police and the rule of law.

And finally, some measures to better integrate every Israeli into the Israeli polity must be seriously considered. The separate haredi school system, which doesn’t even have a core curriculum of secular subjects and which is graduating thousands with no skills for the job market, must be reformed. The housing shortage doesn’t sound like a synagogue/state issue — but with thousands of ultra-Orthodox moving into previously secular or traditional neighborhoods, the cultural conflicts are escalating.

Despite the recent call of a prominent West Bank rabbi for the replacement of Israeli democracy by Jewish law, most Israelis and most of Israel’s supporters abroad reject such a development. Israel was founded to be a democracy and a homeland for the Jews, not a “Torah state” that would resemble a Jewish version of some of the least tolerant and most extreme countries in Israel’s neighborhood. Religious law should not be embedded into the structure of a modern, pluralistic democracy in ways that constrict freedom of religion and conscience.

I am hopeful. Thousands of religious Israelis participate in civil society groups that we support, working against racism and hatred and for pluralism and freedom. In the recent uproar about exclusion of women, confidential hotline operators and reporters discovered that many ultra-Orthodox women find their narrowing universe unacceptable and want assistance in changing it. We, American Jews with an understanding of democracy and pluralism in our cultural DNA, are loud and emphatic about these issues with our Israeli brethren — and we must continue to raise our voices on issues that define not just Israeli but our own Jewish identity.

In the end, what is most Jewish about the Jewish state is that it was founded to be a state for the Jews, and a reflection of our best values. That founding vision, enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, referred to the multilayered connection that the Jewish people has always had to Israel, to the arc of Jewish history that necessitated the creation of a state for the Jews, and, most powerfully of all, to the shining Jewish values that constitute one of our tradition’s great gifts to humanity, and which are meant to guide the Israeli enterprise. It declares that Israel “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.”

We can all say “amen” to that.

Daniel Sokatch is the CEO of the New Israel Fund.