Israel moves to improve religious freedom – for Jews

For the first time, Israel will begin funding rabbis from the Reform and Conservative movements, which have long been shut out in a country dominated by Orthodox Judaism.

Darren Whiteside/Reuters/File
An Israeli youth wrapped in a national flag prays next to ultra-Orthodox Jewish men at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City on Jerusalem Day in this May 20 file photo.

Israel has always touted a national respect for freedom of religion in a region where religious intolerance runs high. But ever since its founding, the Jewish state has nonetheless sanctioned discrimination – against Jews.

Orthodox denominations dominate the Israeli Rabbinate, own a virtual monopoly on funding for religious institutions, and have a lock on the clergy overseeing marriage, divorce, and conversions. Liberal movements like Conservative and Reform Judaism have traditionally been shut out.

But last week, in response to a Supreme Court petition calling for equal funding of pulpit rabbis, Israel’s Attorney General said that for the first time the state would begin paying salaries of clergy from non-Orthodox denominations. Liberal Jewish groups hailed it as a landmark in the campaign for wider pluralism, even though the Orthodox religious monopoly on the state-funded rabbinate is still intact.

"We’ve cracked the ceiling. This will merely be the beginning. It will cause a snowball,” says Steven Beck, an official at the Israel Religious Action Center which first brought the petition seven years ago and plans to mount new legal challenges with last week’s decision. “Finally in Israel Jews will be as free to practice their religion as they do elsewhere.”

Alienating Americans?

At stake is not just competition for the hearts and minds of the Jewish faithful in Israel, but also efforts to shore up US-Israeli ties. The unequal treatment of Jewish denominations could help erode Israel’s relationship with US by spurring alienation among American Jews, many of whom identify with Reform and Conservative denominations, say experts and Jewish groups.

"This is causing strain within the Diaspora," says Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. "The danger is that American Jewry is our most important source of support, and the lack of full religious pluralism could become a security threat to Israel if it undermines our relationship with American Jewish community."

At the same time however, change is almost certain to prompt resistance from the parliament’s influential Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox religious parties, who have threatened to bring down government over issues of religion and state.

Israel’s minister for religious services, Yaacov Margi, threatened to resign before agreeing to pay the salary of clergymen he views as apostates. A colleague from Mr. Margi’s party said the decision “harmed the soul of the Jewish people.”

Alien religion

To be sure, the Reform and Conservative movements are not native to Israel, and they still constitute a small minority of Israeli Jews. Their followers only started immigrating to Israel in the 1960s and 70s, and their liberal version of Judaism was foreign to Israeli Jews, who were either Orthodox or completely secular.

While such non-Orthodox movements worship freely without government intervention, if those denominations want to hold rituals at a holy site like Jerusalem’s Western Wall, they face restrictions by the Orthodox authorities entrusted by the state with managing them.

And while Israel permits liberal groups to run state-funded magnet schools that emphasize religious pluralism, they cannot get equal access to funds to establish synagogues or schools. And while liberal Jews are free to officiate at marriage ceremonies, weddings aren’t officially recognized unless a state-sanctioned Orthodox rabbi is present. The state will recognize a civil marriage from abroad before it will recognize a non-Orthodox Jewish ceremony in Israel.

“On one hand there is freedom of religion for everyone, but on the other side there are major obstacles to exercise freedom of religion: The public money isn’t equal, and the state recognition isn’t given” to liberal clergy, says Yedidia Stern, a law professor and fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. Mr. Stern, an Orthodox Jew, says he believes that the state monopoly should be broke in favor of a "free market" of religious assistance.

Supreme Court case

The Supreme Court case involved a petition for the state to pay the salary of Miri Gold, a female Rabbi at a kibbutz ordained by the Reform movement. The court pressed the state to justify why Ms. Gold shouldn’t be paid for her work like other rabbis.

"We said, this is a democratic country. There’s no reason other streams can’t be recognized," says Rabbi Gold. "On the ground [the decision is] not that much, but in principle it’s a big thing."

The system of conferring state recognition on a select group of denominations stretches back to the 19th-century Ottoman control, when they gave official status to Jewish and Christian denominations alongside Muslim communities.

The system was continued after World War I by the British, who didn’t even recognize the Anglican Church for fear of upsetting an unwritten (and rather inflexible) "status quo’" between the sides, says Eli Lederhendler, a history professor at Hebrew University.

No separation of church and state here

Reform and Conservative Jews are "Jonny come-latelys" to Israel, whereas Orthodox groups have been here for decades and have been active in politics since their inception, according to Mr. Lederhendler. He says that the liberal movements also make up less than 1 percent of the population and only recently began seeking a larger cut of state funds – which runs against the values of religion-state separation the majority of them were raised on. 

"They are shifting from an American paradigm of private observance to an Israeli paradigm of bringing religion into the public square, and that is what this is all about," says Mr. Lederhendler.

"They are saying, 'If freedom of religion means that all religious groups are equally recognized, then we should be equally recognized, too, and it's not an issue is private conscience, it's an issue of public status."

But for many liberal Jewish leaders, their second-rate status is a civil rights issue.

"I feel the discrimination all the time," says Rabbi Naama Kelsman, a dean of the Reform’s Hebrew Union College seminary in Jerusalem. "None of my weddings are recognized. We have to fight to get anything beyond the minimum. They want to exhaust us, and depress us, and we will not be moved."

An earlier version of this story gave the wrong formal name for the Israel Democracy Institute and has since been corrected.

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