Regev Responds


How to most effectively advocate for religious freedom and equality in Israel

What advocacy strategy should supporters of religious freedom in Israel pursue? How should we set our policy priorities? How meaningful are Prime Minister Netanyahu's promises to Diaspora Jewry?

PM Netanyahu's speech before the JFNA at the 2015 General Assembly in Washington, DCPM Netanyahu's speech before the JFNA at the 2015 General Assembly in Washington, DC

After three years of negotiations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is tentatively scheduled to vote this coming Sunday on a plan to create an area where egalitarian prayer services may be held, which has drawn a lot of support and attention from the North American Jewish community. When the details are worked out, and if an agreement is indeed reached and approved by the Government, we will follow up with further analysis and review. In light of this development, I recall President Rivlin’s last USA visit in December and his meeting with the leaders of the major Jewish denominations, which raises the question in my mind as to how we might most effectively advocate for religious freedom in Israel.

Much praise should be extended to Rabbis Rick Jacobs and Steven Wernick for publicly airing the cause of full religious equality in Israel for all. Their exchange with President Rivlin at the 2015 Chanukah event sponsored by the UJA Federation of NY should encourage us to consider the issues they raised and the best strategy to be pursued in order to advance our shared interest of greater religious diversity and freedom and Israel.

While Rabbi Jacobs' and Rabbi Wernick's words certainly generated media attention, it should be remembered that the political reality of Israel is such that among Israel’s top leadership, the President is probably the least relevant when it comes to making official changes to the State of Israel’s policies. Further, even if this encounter had been with the correct official (such as Prime Minister Netanyahu), the question would remain whether the particular list of demands they set forth is most strategically appropriate.


The disadvantage of listing our demands

One disadvantage of such a list, which includes representation on rabbinical courts, state authorization to perform weddings, divorces and funerals, and equal funding for non-Orthodox communities, is that the Prime Minister could elect to deal with these demands gradually – one at time – over an indefinite period of time, while claiming to be carrying out his commitment to pluralism and expecting our gratitude and patience on all other matters. He could present his initiatives as tangible progress, thereby deflating the push on the major issues, or prolonging them indefinitely.

This is exactly what happened when the non-Orthodox Movements chose to challenge him regarding the Kotel, following the plight of the Women of the Wall who are denied their right to read from the Torah in the Women’s section (or, for that matter, to light Chanukkah candles). An indication of this pitfall could be seen back in 2013 during the JFNA General Assembly, as well as during the subsequent Reform movement’s Biennial at the end of that same year, when Netanyahu focused his message to the religiously diversified Federation world and the Reform leadership on his initiatives regarding the Robinson’s Arch section of the Kotel. His words were met with great appreciation and applause, precluding (in both instances) any opportunity to address the audiences’ priorities, playing into Netanyahu’s hands by giving him the opportunity to present himself as a champion for pluralism, while the issue he chose to address was the most convenient for him and insignificant when compared to the hundreds of thousands in Israel and in the Diaspora who are denied the right to marriage in Israel, and whose Jewish status is labeled ‘second rate.’ This was most apparent in the case of the URJ Biennial when key demands were not presented for the Prime Minister to address when he was introduced, and when he completed his preferred message, he refused to take any questions.

This was a wonderful gesture, but it should not assuage supporters of true religious freedom, for the Prime Minister claims he is committed to making ALL Jews feel at home in the State of Israel.

More recently, Netanyahu felt increasing pressure due to the Women of the Wall’s public struggle and the derogatory remarks against Reform Judaism made by a number of his ultra-Orthodox Coalition partners, and made a welcome and dramatic statement about making all Jews, regardless of religious stream, feel equally at home in Israel. However, he ultimately translated his historic message into nickles and dimes (as important as they are) by committing to join the Jewish Agency in funding the building and maintenance of Reform and Conservative synagogues. This was a wonderful gesture, but it should not assuage supporters of true religious freedom, for the Prime Minister claims he is committed to making all Jews feel at home in the State of Israel.

undoubtedly, if an agreement is reached regarding the Robinson's Arch section of the Kotel, and if it is approved by the Government, we can expect the Prime Minister's Office to launch a major PR initiative, hailing his pluralistic performance vis-à-vis the American Jewish leadership.


Considering potential priorities

Some demands are less realistic than others, which is important to consider. For example, it is not very realistic to expect that non-Orthodox rabbis will be represented on rabbinic courts in Israel. In fact, the position of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel is to settle, for the time being, for a parallel civil path. This would consist of civil marriage and divorce, of allowing couples whatever religious ceremonies they prefer without interference from the State, and, should the need for legal remedy arise, it could be sought in civil family court. Further, setting up a multi-denominational judicial system is very unlikely in the foreseeable future, given the entrenchment of Israel’s Orthodox establishment, the complexity of this issue, and the questionable desirability of adding to the scope of religious courts that function as state courts. In setting our priorities as advocates, we must take such considerations into account.

Other issues, like performing funerals, are actually less a matter of pluralism in Israel than a matter of non-implementation of existing laws. The 1996 law regarding the right to an alternative civil burial was passed by the Knesset, but only a handful of such cemeteries were established. In these cemeteries, rabbis of all denominations may perform burial services. The State Comptroller has criticized the abysmal implementation of this law in very harsh language. Renewed deliberation on this matter is being debated in the Knesset at present. This is a good example of an issue that does not involve only the religious streams, but in truth, applies to the secular public as well. It thereby demonstrates the streams’ alliance with the majority of Israel’s Jewish population, taking it beyond the debate over pluralism into the further compelling realm of civil liberties. The crux in issues such as this is to implement existing legal frameworks so the advocates’ approach must be tailored accordingly.

Ironically, when it comes to conversions, it is the Modern Orthodox who are currently denied official recognition, such as the independent conversion courts running under the name of ‘Giyur k’Halakha.’ These rabbis find themselves treated no differently than their Reform and Conservative counterparts. Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel, for some years now, entitle the converts to be registered as Jews in the civil population registry. This was achieved and recognized after successful litigation, which Rabbi Uri Regev had the privilege of participating in, which resulted in the court ordering the state to register non-Orthodox conversions.

Unfortunately, these same converts who are registered as ‘Jewish’ by the State cannot get married as Jews in Israel, but neither can non-Orthodox converts or modern Orthodox converts who converted in the USA. If advocates of religious freedom and equality were to focus strategically upon the right to family – the right to marry – this would empower us to frame the debate as a matter of wider appeal and wider application. Freedom of marriage is not just a matter of religious pluralism, but truly a core civil rights issue, and is perhaps the most symbolic of the current state of religious affairs in Israel, which has given an official monopoly to the established, Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. This is true not only regarding Jews, but also non-Jews in Israel, whose marriages are exclusively controlled by their respective religious functionaries. (See, for instance, former Chief Justice Barak’s assertion that religion's control over all marriages in Israel is a violation of civil rights, human dignity, religious freedom and equality:


Focusing on marriage freedom

Strategically, we believe the issue of marriage freedom ought to be the primary focus for our efforts in Israel, in the USA, and across the Jewish world. Given Netanyahu's past record, and the difficulty of advocating effectively on a multi-faceted agenda, we believe that at this stage, rather than listing a variety of demands, which often turn out to be as weak as their weakest items, we should rather focus on one key critical issue, which bears both tangible and symbolic significance. Doing so will not only advance the rights of the streams, but equally applies to the needs of Israel's secular population. We would demonstrate that what motivates us is not partisan interest, but rather a shared vision of a religiously diverse and free society. We would be well advised to prefer non-sectarian causes, but rather those that serve broader society. It is encouraging that in just the past several years, the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee and the National Council of Jewish Women have all publicly committed to advocate for marriage freedom in Israel, as have several local boards of rabbis in response to Hiddush’s appeal.

I would love to hear back from you about this strategy, and speak further with you about how to get involved.

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