Most Israeli Jews want US Jewry involved in religious policy, poll finds

Sixty percent of Israeli Jews support the work of American Jewish coalitions whose goal is to advance civil marriage in Israel, according to a new poll.

The survey released Monday by Hiddush, an Israeli organization that aims to advance religious pluralism, found that nearly one-third of Israelis strongly support U.S. Jewish involvement in the marriage debate, while 28 percent moderately support such involvement. Israel allows only Orthodox marriage for Jews in Israel, though solid majorities of Israeli Jews have for years favored instituting civil marriage.

In addition, the poll found a majority of Israeli Jews believe Israel should take Diaspora Jewry’s views into consideration when setting religious policy. Fifty-three percent of Israeli Jews support that position, with 47 percent opposed. Majorities of voters for all of Israel’s centrist and left-wing parties support considering Diaspora views.

Religious Israelis, however, are opposed to taking Diaspora views into account. Sixty-one percent of religious Zionist Israelis oppose consideration of Diaspora views, as do 73 percent of haredi Orthodox Israelis.

The debate over freedom of marriage also tops the list of which religious policy issues Israeli Jews consider most important. Thirty-eight percent of respondents view the marriage debate as the most important religious issue, while 33 percent place it second. Israeli Jews consider the debate over whether to allow commerce and public transit on Shabbat to be the second most important, followed by the debate over Jewish conversion and the issue of excluding women from public spaces.

The debate over prayer arrangements at the Western Wall, a major focus of American Jewish organizations, ranks last in Israeli Jews’ list of religious priorities, according to the poll. Only 3 percent of respondents see it as the most important issue, while 8 percent rank it second.

The Western Wall debate has been in the public eye in Israel following a government decision in January to expand and upgrade the non-Orthodox prayer space there. Following a backlash from haredi Orthodox political parties, however, the government is reexamining the decision and its status is unclear.

“The battle over freedom of worship at the Western Wall is clearly a justified and important battle,” Rabbi Uri Regev, Hiddush’s founder, said in a statement issued Monday. “However, if the Jews of the Diaspora are interested in strengthening their partnership with Israeli Jews, it is critical to understand that Israelis attach far greater importance to the struggle against the Orthodox monopoly over marriage and divorce.”

Some 500 Israelis were contacted by Hiddush on March 29. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

660,000 Jewish-Israelis can’t legally marry in Israel

Prohibitions on civil and non-Orthodox weddings in Israel prevent 660,000 Jewish-Israelis — including 364,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union — from marrying in the Jewish state, according to a nonprofit promoting religious freedom in Israel.

Hiddush presented the information in a report Monday to a Knesset conference on “alternatives to marriage through the [Chief] Rabbinate,” according to a news release the group issued Monday. It also reported that 20 percent of weddings registered in Israel took place overseas — a way of circumventing the prohibition on non-Orthodox weddings stateside — and that 70 percent of secular Israelis say they would have non-Orthodox wedding ceremonies if the state permitted them.

The nonprofit attributed its statistics to opinion polls and Israel Central Bureau of Statistics data.

Rabbi Uri Regev, who heads Hiddush, told the Knesset conference that growing numbers of Israelis “wish to be free of the Rabbinate’s shackles” and that the “monopoly of the Rabbinate” hurts Judaism because it “leads the general public to hate Judaism and identify it with dark, ugly extremism.”

In addition to many immigrants, those unable to wed in Israel because civil and non-Orthodox Jewish weddings performed there are not legally recognized include 284,000 gays and lesbians, 13,000 non-Orthodox converts to Judaism and various others, according to Hiddush.

A poll conducted for the group found that 64 percent of Jewish-Israelis supports “official recognition of all types of marriage,” including same-sex partnerships.

Hiddush reported that only 45 countries in the world, most of them Muslim, have marriage policies as restrictive as Israel’s.

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.

Israel fails in survey on freedom of marriage

Israel received the lowest possible score in a freedom of marriage survey conducted by the Israeli religious rights organization Hiddush.

The nonprofit group released the results of its survey on April 30, giving Israel a zero along with 45 other countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran. The survey ranked countries on a scale of zero to 2.

Hiddush cited Israel’s “religious monopoly on marriage, which, among many determining factors, prevents hundreds of thousands of citizens from getting married.” 

In a statement, Hiddush chair Stanley Gold said, “Our hope is that the difficult image this map has created will assist in promoting a policy change in Israel that will bring forth freedom of marriage. It is universally recognized as a major human and civil right and should be a natural implementation of Israel’s own Declaration of Independence, which promises freedom of religion and conscience.”

Hiddush said Israel was the only developed country that failed to score any points.

Charedis’ Political Clout a Threat to Israel, Regev Says

The most serious internal problem facing Israel is the political clout exerted by the Charedim  (ultra-Orthodox), which threatens the future unity, economic development and military readiness of the state.

This is the firm conviction of Rabbi Uri Regev, who recently spent a week in Los Angeles to garner support for Hiddush, a year-old organization whose motto calls for “religious freedom and equality in Israel.”

Regev, a native-born Israeli, Reform leader and president/CEO of Hiddush (Hebrew for innovation or renewal), co-founded the movement with Los Angeles business executive Stanley Gold, who serves as chairman.

In an interview with The Jewish Journal, Regev, 59, argued with characteristic intensity and passion that “the Israeli public will no longer tolerate selling Israel’s future to the Charedi parties … and a Charedi-dominated Chief Rabbinate which controls its life from birth to death and almost everything in between.”

As backup, he cited a poll taken last summer asking which internal confrontation most threatened Israel’s social cohesion.

Some 73 percent considered Charedi versus secular as the most serious split, trailed by the political left versus right, rich versus poor, Ashkenazi versus Sephardi, and new immigrants versus settled residents, Regev said.

Conventional wisdom has it that while most non-Charedim Israelis chafe under religious controls, they feel powerless or are too wrapped up in more immediate problems to exert much effort to change the situation.

Regev maintained that such alleged passivity no longer holds true, as shown by two mass demonstrations last year.

One protested a government attempt to circumvent a Supreme Court decision that would have eliminated 135 million shekels (about $38 million) in public funds to subsidize 11,000 married yeshiva students.

The second protest was aimed at Charedi government officials who ruled that an emergency medical station could not be built adjoining the Barzilai Medical Center in rocket-rattled Ashkelon because the building site contained ancient Jewish bones, despite archaeological evidence to the contrary, Regev said.

But what riles Hiddush and most of the non-Charedi population the most is the exemption of full-time yeshiva students from military service, mandatory for all other Israeli men and women.

The exemption goes back to the founding of the state, when then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion agreed to exempt 400 yeshiva students from military service. 

The number now has grown to 65,000, after almost doubling during the past decade, and, given the high birthrate in Charedi families, will dangerously cut into the country’s future military manpower, Regev argued.

A parallel danger, he said, is to the state’s economic future, since many Charedim do not enter the work force or are not prepared to do so because they lack the necessary education and skills.

Underlying much of the problem is the disproportionate power held by Charedi political parties, which represent a minority of the population but frequently hold the balance of power in Israel’s multiparty coalition governments.

The solution, however, does not lie in the efforts of the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel (CECI), founded in Los Angeles, and of other advocates to reform the Israeli electoral system to resemble those of the United States or Britain.

“We need not wait for a fundamental government reform,” Regev said. “Israel will always have at least three parties, so the religious will always be the swing vote.”

However, Hiddush’s platfom does not impress Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, adjunct chair for Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola University Law School and a frequent Orthodox spokesman.

He disputed that the Israeli population is primarily secular. Rather, he said, “Most Israelis are neither Orthodox nor Reform nor secular, but traditional. They make kiddush on Friday night, keep kosher, attend synagogue and in general maintain a level of observance far exceeding that of the American Jewish community.”

Adlerstein said that among American Jews, the strongest support for aliyah and financial contributions to Israel comes from the Orthodox sector.

If support for Israel is declining among young American Jews, it is because “they are not into their Jewishness,” not because they fear Orthodox domination, Adlerstein said.

If the Chief Rabbinate seems at times out of touch with present realities, he added, the answer is not to hit them over the head with a mallet.

During its current start-up year, Hiddush has been operating on a $500,000 budget and skeleton staff, both incentives for Regev’s recent fundraising trip, his first, to Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.

Hiddush obtained its nonprofit tax status from the IRS quite recently, and, without the support network of more established Israeli organizations, Regev relied mainly on contributions from Gold’s L.A. friends.

However, Hiddush’s brochure outlines a series of long-range projects, including use of social media in Israel and the Diaspora, alliances with like-minded groups, legal challenges, investigative media reports, special outreach to Russian immigrants in Israel and “report cards” on the votes of Knesset members.

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