Supreme Court rules on Reform and Conservative conversions

The friend of my enemy is my enemy

Most people are familiar with the expression “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – it dates back to the 4th century BCE, and one compelling example of its relevance is the case of the USSR partnering with the Western European nations and United States to defeat the Nazis. A more recent compelling example is the increasing closeness of the Gulf States to Israel, as Iran, a common enemy, threatens them both.

Meir Porush, source: WikipediaMeir Porush, source: Wikipedia

While recognizing the obvious distinction between these situations, which involve physical threats, to the religious coercion that we have been experiencing for many years in Israel, the expression is pertinent, nonetheless. The battle over religious freedom has once again erupted in reaction to the recent Supreme Court ruling on equal treatment under civil law, which Reform and Conservative Conversions are entitled to; as well as in the ultra-Orthodox parties’ leaders announcing that they will boycott of prospective Knesset Member Rabbi Gilad Kariv and his party (Labor) merely because he is a Reform rabbi who advocates for religious pluralism.

All of that should bring us to consider the need to expand this centuries-old wisdom and recognize that “The friend of my enemy is my enemy” as well. Our call to read it this way is directed at both the Jewish leadership in the diaspora and to Israel’s civil political leaders. This is not just about the enemies of non-Orthodox Judaism. It is about the enemies of Israel’s rule of law, of the independent civil judiciary, of the rights and dignity of immigrants from the former USSR, and of the core democratic principles of equality and religious freedom.

For far too long, the pluralistic leadership of American Jewry and that of other Jewish communities around the world was willing to look the other way, with rare exceptions, when discriminatory pronouncements and their political translations into laws and policies were festering. Similarly, Israeli civil political parties felt no compunction about selling out Diaspora Jewry and these core liberties when offering political payoffs to the religious parties in exchange for their Knesset votes. It’s time to say, “Enough is enough,” and recognize that the price of looking the other way is much too high. The future and well-being of both Israel and the Jewish people is at stake.

The ultra-Orthodox parties have now made it clear that they will not join any coalition-government, which refuses to undo the Supreme Court ruling with counter legislation to ensure that only Orthodox conversions be recognized in Israel. They also demand that any such coalition legislate an override clause, enabling them to undo any future Supreme Court rulings, which they do not like, merely by pressuring their coalition partners to put up the simple majority necessary to nullify these rulings.

Clearly, looking the other way and merely hoping that something will improve in the future will simply not suffice. The forces seeking to turn Israel into a theocratic regime, squash religious pluralism, and entrench the fundamentalist Orthodox establishment’s monopoly over Jewish religious life in Israel are on the offensive. There are voices and groups, across the political spectrum from left to center to right, which vow to fight for Israel’s Jewish, democratic, and liberal character, in which civil liberties, such as freedom of marriage, will be ensured and in which all streams of Judaism, as well as secularism, will be able to live together in equality, mutual tolerance, and respect. However, whereas this discourse is prominent in Israel, it is still deemed by the Diaspora’s Jewish leadership as distant and far less relevant. This is a tragic reality because the activists and NGOs in Israel’s trenches need the support of like-minded individuals and organizations in the Diaspora.

Public funds and political opportunism favor Israel’s religious establishment in a powerful and singular manner, as we have seen with Netanyahu, the government, and the police not daring to take on the massive violations of the COVID-19 restrictions that are prevalent in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community.

The Jewish communities in the Diaspora thrive and operate on the basis of laws and conventions that ensure their freedom of choice and equality; but their counterparts in Israel swim against the stream. It is not that the Israeli public is set against them, rather that most Israeli Jews, as Hiddush has repeatedly proven in the annual Religion & State Index, are on the same page regarding religious freedom and equality as those in the Diaspora.

Still, public funds and political opportunism favor Israel’s religious establishment in a powerful and singular manner, as we have seen with Netanyahu, the government, and the police not daring to take on the massive violations of the COVID-19 restrictions that are prevalent in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. There have been numerous largescale weddings and schools that have continued operating in ultra-Orthodox communities, even though these and many other infractions constitute criminal offensives. Compelling evidence has been presented of close to zero enforcement in the ultra-orthodox neighborhoods and municipalities, compared to massive enforcement in Arab communities and of individual pedestrians who have been cited by the police for not wearing face masks. With this in mind, we would be wise to recall another discerning expression: “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”

It is high time and long overdue to realize that the friend of my enemy is my enemy. There is no use in reaching out to the likes of the ultra-Orthodox political parties and Chief Rabbinate in Israel to show them the errors and dangers of their ways. Doing so and satisfying ourselves with yet new platforms for dialogue will only empower that which we have seen in the past – the “heckler’s veto”. It is the civil parties’ leaders in Israel, which should be explicitly targeted with constructive criticism and strong admonition. It is time to go on the offensive, for defense has not served us well. This was the lesson of the ‘Let my People Go’ era and of Israel’s many battles over ‘Who is a Jew’.

We should take on a more holistic and unifying approach. We should not settle for suspending the conversion legislation that is being threatened. The Jewish world did that in the past, and this resulted in the very converts for whom we fought remaining victims of a political deal, which entrusted the sole authority over the marriages of all Jews in Israel to the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. We should have insisted then, and we should insist now, that those who were just granted equal civil citizen entitlement, whether they were converted Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, also be extended the equal privilege of being allowed to marry in Israel. At present, none of those who will enjoy the fruits of this landmark Supreme Court ruling will be able to marry in Israel.

Further, this shouldn’t extend only to marriage. We must look at the larger picture – genuine life must be breathed into the principle of religious freedom and equality, just as it is etched in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which is supported by most Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora alike. Such constructive vision has been already endorsed by leading Jews throughout the Jewish world, representing a wide spectrum of political and religious views. It is offered in the Vision Statement on Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state, and it should be given serious consideration as a constructive, alternative vision for the path Israel should be pursuing.

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