Religious Pluralists Fearing Rollback Of Gains


While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds coalition-building talks with charedi and center-right parties, some Jewish groups worry that pluralism — which flourished after Israel’s last election — will suffer without centrist input.

“A right-wing government is going to be an enormous setback for those trying to advance the idea of civil marriage,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, founder and director of ITIM: The Jewish-Life Information Center, a nonprofit organization that helps people navigate Israel’s bureaucracy related to marriage, birth and other major life changes. And it is expected that other strides towards pluralism made by the last Israeli government — it was the first time in a decade there were no charedi parties in the cabinet — will also be reversed. Among the first changes expected will be to the military draft.

Under the slogan of “sharing the burden,” the last government passed a new conscription law that ended wholesale army exemptions that had been granted to seminary students, who are mostly charedi. It was to be fully implemented in four years, but a right-wing government is expected to kill its provisions.

There was also some headway made by the last government in the area of conversions. Last Nov. 3, the Israeli cabinet voted to strip the Chief Rabbinate of sole control over conversions in Israel. It ordered that municipal rabbis also be permitted to perform them in the hope that some of them might impose less onerous conditions on the potential convert.

“There was a new horizon for potential converts, but it now seems that that horizon is going to close,” Rabbi Farber said.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said he, too, is concerned about the “few areas in which we were beginning to see potential progress.”

“It is impossible to imagine a new government without charedi parties,” he said, referring to the fact that Netanyahu’s Likud Party won a landslide victory with 30 seats.

But he confided that the conversion reform implemented by the last cabinet caused the Reform movement to fear that the change “might weaken our own conversion process. … We were happy it was approved, but we want something more dramatic, a change that includes [the recognition of] civil marriage and divorce and equitable funding for our rabbis.”

Despite the cabinet decision, the change was never implemented because the Chief Rabbinate refused to approve conversions performed by municipal rabbis and one of the key parties in the coalition, Jewish Home, objected to it, noted Yizhar Hess, executive director and CEO of the Conservative movement’s Masorti Movement in Israel.

He said he is convinced “the previous cabinet’s action will be canceled by the new government since it dealt only with Orthodox conversions and had no affect on non-Orthodox conversions. There will be no one to fight its cancellation … and there is no constituency to support the municipal rabbis.

“The Orthodox in Israel are governed by the more radical streams, and when it is canceled you will hear no voice of protest from the street. It is tragic.”

Hess added that had the change included conversions by the Reform and Conservative movements, there would have been some protest.

“But we were asked to keep silent,” he said. “The agreement was that it would not harm or help us. And as you see, it did not help them either.”

And with an expected right-wing government taking shape, Hess said the “conversion issue will be tabled for the near future. … unless the moderate Modern Orthodox in Israel understand that in order to make significant changes in the coercive and corrupt Chief Rabbinate regarding religion and state, nothing will happen.”

Among what Rabbi Uri Regev described as a “modest gain” by the last government that he fears may be reversed involves work on creating a new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

“We were far along on this, and the question is whether this effort will be resumed or frozen in its incomplete space,” Rabbi Jacobs said.

Natan Sharansky, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, was working with the Reform and Conservative movements, as well as the Jewish Federations of North America, to develop the prayer space.

“We were working effectively for one wall for one people,” Rabbi Jacobs said. “It is possible the prime minister may still take a strong leadership position on this. We hope he does.”

As envisioned, there would be a single entrance to the Western Wall or Kotel and three separate sections: men, women and egalitarian. Currently, the egalitarian section is separate from the other two. It is hoped this arrangement would put an end to the violence that has occurred when women wearing prayer shawls and carrying a Torah attempted to pray in the women’s section.

Rabbi Noa Sattath, director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem, said there is also real concern that the new government may undermine the “democratic nature of Israel.” That could happen, she said, should the proposed nation-state bill be reconsidered.

“Earlier versions of the bill favored the Jewish character of the state in the narrow, Orthodox sense, rather than the democratic character of Israel,” Rabbi Sattath explained. “In our view of Judaism, there is no contradiction. But in the Orthodox view, there is a clear contradiction.”

Asked the implications of such legislation, she said: “If you are going to build a state founded on halacha [Jewish law], there would not be gender equality or equality for minorities. Many of the freedoms guaranteed in a democracy are not guaranteed in halacha. They have said the Jewish character of the state is more important to them. And it is over this bill that the last government fell.”

Rabbi Sattath said her organization would be reaching out to the center-right party that is expected to be in the coalition, Kulanu, as well as to some liberal members of Likud to enlist their help in “preventing this disastrous bill from passing.”

Naomi Paiss, a spokeswoman for the New Israel Fund, which defines itself as an American nonprofit that funds groups in Israel committed to equality and democracy for all Israelis, said such a new law would not “reflect the desire of most Israelis and would contribute to American Jewish concerns about the rights of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel.”

She pointed out that Naftali Bennett, chairman of the Jewish Home Party, has already “said such a law could be used to deport all African refugees.” And Paiss said it could also be used to “prevent family reunification among Israeli Arab citizens because they would not be allowed to marry Palestinians in the West Bank and then bring them to Israel.”

“Those supporting this bill say it would allow things Israel’s High Court keeps throwing out because they discriminate against non-Jews,” she said.

Rabbi Uri Regev, CEO of Hiddush-Freedom of Religion for Israel, said that if Netanyahu is committed to any of the pluralistic efforts initiated during his last government, now is the time for him to include them as part of his coalition government.

“During the period in which the coalition negotiations are taking place, bilateral agreements between Likud and each potential coalition member are being made and under the law they need to be disclosed before the new government is presented,” he explained.

The New Israel Fund is expressing concern also that a rightwing government would “strengthen the power of both the settler lobby and charedi hegemony over personal and religious life in Israel,” Paiss noted.

“Any reforms in the area of civil marriage would be highly unlikely, and there is a bill supported by Jewish Home that would put progressive NGOs [non-governmental organizations] out of business,” she said. “Most of the progressive NGOs get funding from Europe and sometimes from the U.S. This bill would require such funding to have defense ministry approval, something that would essentially shut down the human rights community in Israel.”

Among the groups Paiss said would be affected are the Association for Civil Rights in Israel; B’tselem; Rabbis for Human Rights, and Physicians for Human Rights, Israel.

She acknowledged that these groups are often critical of Israel, but she said they are “the eyes and ears of the world on the West Bank, and it is no wonder that the settler party wants them shut down.”

There is little likelihood that Netanyahu and his Likud Party would reach out to the centrist Zionist Union to form a unity government, according to Rabbi Regev.

“Ideally, we would like to see them work out their differences — and they are not as far apart as the public is led to believe,” he said. “But the trust between them is so great that he [Netanyahu] would rather cater to the extortion of the charedi parties rather than establish a framework that would enable a civil coalition to be established.”