U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Israel and religious hypocrisy
Last week, along with the enlightened world, we celebrated the dramatic ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court. The cause of same-sex marriage enjoys wide support in the Jewish community, and in Israel the majority of the Jewish population also supports it. Thirteen American-Jewish organizations were among the 25 organizations that supported the petition via amicus brief.
Marriage freedom is a key pillar of our advocacy efforts at Hiddush — Freedom of Religion for Israel. The United States’ recognition of same-sex marriages encourages all supporters of religious freedom, and reinforces our commitment to achieve marriage freedom in Israel as well. After all, doesn’t Israel pride itself on being the only democracy in the Middle East? And yet, how is that Israel is the only Western democracy in the world that denies its citizens the right to marry? Not only same-sex couples are discriminated against, but also every couple that does not meet the approval of the state’s official religious functionaries. This includes non-Orthodox marriages (because only Orthodox rabbis are recognized as legitimate marriage officiants by the state), as well as civil marriages, leaving hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens deprived of the right to marry and millions more denied the right to marry in a ceremony of their choice.
Even as we celebrate with our brothers and sisters in North America, we are disheartened that only some of the Jewish organizations at the forefront of this battle for equality and defense of marriage have been active or even supportive when it comes to advocating for marriage freedom in Israel. After all, religious prejudice has also been translated into Israeli civil law, but worse, it is Jewish religious prejudice. Further, some organizations that publicly profess their commitment to religious freedom and the upholding of democratic principles trample these very principles or choose to stand idly when they are denied in Israel.
After the Supreme Court’s ruling, we noted with great satisfaction the public statement of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU), America’s largest Orthodox Jewish organization, which, while expressing its religious opposition to same-sex marriage, nevertheless professed great respect for and acceptance of the Supreme Court ruling. The OU invoked core democratic principles, including, “We recognize that no religion has the right to dictate its beliefs to the entire body politic,” “Judaism teaches respect for others,” and “We are grateful that we live in a democratic society.” This is a profound exposition of the right balance between religious convictions on the one hand, and democracy and respect for civil liberties on the other.
The question we feel compelled to raise, though, is whether the OU would also apply these principles to the challenges facing Israel in the confrontation between Israel’s established religion and the people’s civil liberties, let alone respect for others’ religious or secular choices. The unholy alliance of religion and state in Israel is based on the exact opposite view, namely, that religion does have “the right to dictate its beliefs to the entire body politic” and will do so if and whenever it can. The result is that not only are same-sex couples denied the right to marry, but so are masses of other Israeli citizens. As of yet, the OU has kept its peace regarding this drastic deviation from the principles it espoused last week.
This episode brings to mind the hypocrisy of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, the sister religious movement of Israel’s Agudath Israel, which uses political clout in Israeli government coalitions to impose religious coercion, discriminate against non-Orthodox Judaism and deny hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens the right to family. However, when the movement’s own rights as a religious minority were threatened in the U.S. or Europe, it sung religious freedom’s praises. In 1993, for instance, when President Bill Clinton signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Agudath Israel had strongly advocated for in an attempt to undo the Supreme Court ruling that curtailed religious freedom in the case involving the use of peyote in religious rituals of Native Americans.
Agudath Israel publicly proclaimed at the time: “This is a proud and auspicious day for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience in this country. … The Supreme Court’s majority in the peyote case asserted, astoundingly, that America could no longer ‘afford the luxury’ of treating religious liberty on par with other fundamental freedoms. Congress and the president have now utterly rejected that disheartening attitude, and have declared with resounding affirmation: religious liberty is a fundamental freedom of the highest order.”
Frankly, we could not have put it better: “Religious liberty is a fundamental freedom of the highest order.” The challenge is that Agudath Israel seems to only apply this principle to defend its own religious rights. In Israel, where it has political clout, it has no inhibitions about denying that liberty to others, especially to fellow Jews. To date, this hypocrisy has never been seriously challenged by America’s Jewish communal leadership, which Agudath Israel surely sees as an acceptance and legitimization of its double standard.
Agudath’s conduct brings to mind the immortal account we find in Judah HaLevi’s classic text, “Ha’Kuzari” (written circa 1140):
Engaged in a debate with the King of Khazars, a rabbi expounds upon Judaism’s moral superiority. In response, the King challenges him, saying, “That might be so if your humility were voluntary; but it is involuntary, and if you had power you would slay,” to which the rabbi replies: “You have touched our weak point, O King of the Khazars.”
Agudath Israel proves the King’s point, as the American historical experience has proven as well. (The early pilgrims, escaping religious persecution in Europe, lost no time before persecuting others such as Quakers, Jews, etc. Thus, America came to understand the need to safeguard religious freedom, passing the First Amendment to the Constitution. Israel still needs to learn that lesson!)
Will the OU rise above this hypocrisy and join with forces for democracy in Israel in realizing its own statement of values? Will it join the efforts that have been launched by the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee, Hiddush’s Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel and others in promoting its own very laudable principles, not only within the borders of the United States, but in the Jewish state as well, and not only when Jews are a minority seeking protection but also when they are a majority in their own state?
Rabbi Uri Regev heads Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel, Inc., a trans-denominational Israel-Diaspora partnership for religious freedom and equality in Israel.