Standing up for Religious Freedom in Israel 

A new conversion bill has been drafted in Israel and will be presented to the Israeli government in the next few weeks.  The proposed legislation would make conversion a uniform process under the auspices of a stringent state-authorized Orthodox body.  Interestingly, that means that not only are Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist conversions in Israel not recognized (which has always been the case in Israel), but the bill would also end private Orthodox conversions in Israel.  It is rare that Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities are the targets of the same religious discrimination in Israel, but here we are.  This legislation would directly oppose a 2016 High Court ruling that decided that the conversions of private rabbinical courts should be officially recognized by the state.

When it comes to the definition of ‘who is a Jew’ in Israel (and with conversion as an important path to Jewish status), there are two key arenas where Jewish status matters:
(1) Israeli citizenship and (2) life-cycle events such as marriage, divorce, burial.

  1. Citizenship is under the authority of Israel’s Interior Ministry.  Any Jew can become a citizen of Israel under the 1950 Law of Return, which stipulates that any individual who has at least one Jewish grandparent, or has converted in a recognized court outside the State of Israel, may apply for citizenship.  The Law of Return does not, however, provide for a citizen’s automatic recognition as Jewish by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate/the Rabbanut.
  2. As you may know, in Israel, life-cycle events fall under the authority and standards of the the Rabbanut.  When it comes to weddings, divorce, burial, etc, state law is relgious law.  There are no civil or secular options available.  There are also no religious alternatives.  Weddings conducted by Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist rabbis in Israel are not recognized by the State.  According to Israeli law, anyone who is not Jewish can’t get married in Israel, and the Rabbanut will only officiate at lifecycle events for those they define as Jews, a definition more narrow than the standard for the Law of Return.

Under the current proposed bill, there are now 600 Orthodox converts, mostly children of immigrants from former Soviet Union countries, whose conversions are being challenged.  But they are among 400,000 Israelis whose Jewish status is in limbo because they have been categorized as having “no religion” – those who became citizens under the Law of Return but are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate.

It is also important to note that last July, the Rabbanut released a list of ‘blacklisted’ rabbis outside of Israel whose decisions regarding Jewish status it rejects.  I don’t have the ‘honour’ of appearing on the infamous list, because as a female, non-halakhic (not adehering to traditional Jewish law) rabbi, I would never be recognized as authoritative. However, this measure now rejects numerous Conservative and Modern Orthodox rabbis as well who follow the stringencies of halakha/Jewish law but are nonetheless being rejected for political reasons.  It is clear that the Rabbanut is tightening its hold on matters of Jewish status and these stringencies have implications both in Israel and throughout the global Jewish communities.

I want to suggest that this is an important issue for us to engage with and lend our voices to. Our commitments to inclusion and diversity call on us as a community to be part of advocating for religious pluralism, religious freedom and rights in Israel, as part of a shared vision of diversity and pluralism among the Jewish people.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence is rooted in the precepts of liberty, justice and peace as taught by our prophets, guaranteeing freedom and equal entitlements and responsibilities to all of its citizens.  The voices of the global Jewish communities are important in challenging Israel to live up to its own stated ideals and values.  This also isn’t just an issue for Israel or Israelis, but it impacts global Jewry.  This is a valuable moment for Progressive and Modern Orthodox Jews to work together to build the Jewish future we aim to see, one that affirms Jewish pluralism around the world as an essential part of our vibrancy and unity.

What you can do :

  1.  Learn about Hiddush, a non-denominational organization that is committed to the advancement of “freedom of religion and conscience” and “full social and political equality without distinction on the basis of religion” – Visit http://hiddush.org/ to learn more.
  2. Consider signing Hiddush’s vision statement.