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The Knesset dissolves, but the battle for religious reform continues

When the 19th Knesset was sworn in on March 18, 2013, it marked only the second time in 29 years that a new coalition was formed without any of the Haredi parties. A record 48 new members of the Knesset were sworn in that day, vowing to revolutionize the system including the volatile issue of religion and state. Endless possibilities were manifest: not only a feeling that an opportunity for change was promising, but that there had never been a better chance than now. The process was begun.

On Monday, 21 months later, the Knesset voted to dissolve itself. Whatever had been accomplished in the 19th Knesset was now history, with further efforts for religious reform legislation left on the table. But despite the temporary setback, that fight continues both here and in the U.S., a concerted effort to break the Haredi monopoly on personal-status issues such as marriage, divorce and conversion.

One of the accomplishments of the outgoing Knesset was the passage a year ago of the so-called “Tzohar Law.” The contentious bill reformed the marriage registration process, allowing for a free-market approach in choosing the regional branch office of the rabbinate at which a couple may register. (The Orthodox Chief Rabbinate is the only official Israeli body authorized to sanction and register Jewish marriages.)

The new law meant not only better service, but immigrants with difficulty proving their Jewish lineage would be able to find less stringent Orthodox rabbis to perform their wedding.

To that bill was added a last-minute clause inserted by Deputy Religious Services Minister Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan, adding criminal penalties – a two-year prison sentence – for couples who illegally marry outside the Chief Rabbinate, as well as for the rabbis who marry them.

MK Aliza Lavie of the centrist Yesh Atid party proposed an amendment to remove the criminal penalties inserted by Ben-Dahan, in “an attempt to restore sanity” to a law that had become “crazy and surreal.” Lavie’s amendment would have limited the law only to marriage registrars who performed weddings without registering them.

Lavie’s initiative was co-written by Rabbi Seth Farber, founder and director of the ITIM Advocacy Center, which helps secular Israelis and converts navigate Israel’s byzantine state rabbinate for life-cycle events.

Calling the Tzohar Law “an outrage,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Times of Israel saying: “I wonder how we got to a situation where we need to punish people for getting married with a chuppah. I’m not sure if there is another country in the world besides Israel that would put me in jail for performing a marriage ceremony without getting it approved first.”

Last week – after it was clear that the government would soon fall and new elections would be held – the coalition’s Ministerial Committee on Legislative Affairs voted down Lavie’s amendment. Three days later, as the Knesset was closing for the day, Lavie submitted it again before an empty chamber. The Haredim heard about it and sent out a call to come vote. Five answered. Yesh Atid and other liberal parties also sent out a red alert, and seven MKs came running. The preliminary bill thus passed 7-5.

 “It was a symbolic victory, but a victory nonetheless – we were going to go down fighting,” said Farber, who acknowledged that the process will have to start again in the next Knesset. “It’s an outrage that this law is on the books. It’s true, no one’s been punished, no one’s been thrown in jail. But it’s something that a Jewish democratic state shouldn’t have as one of its laws. It’s not being implemented now, but who’s to say what kind of right-wing government we’ll get down the road that will start implementing it. Once something’s a law, it has a life of its own.”

MK Rabbi Dov Lipman, who was on his way to the Knesset weight room when he received a text to quickly come vote, said he was outraged that someone should be punished for doing a marriage according to halacha in a Jewish state.

“I can go to jail for it – I’ve done weddings!” he exclaimed. “I think we need to start moving towards some level of normalcy, where the same way when you have a question in America about who did a wedding, you resolve it that way here.”

Ben-Dahan’s argument was that the clause was inserted to prevent recalcitrant husbands who refuse to grant their wives a Jewish religious divorce, known as a get, from marrying again, which according to Jewish law he could do. The one more likely to suffer, he said, would be the woman, who cannot remarry or have a sexual relationship with another man until she receives her get.

Farber argues that the Orthodox monopoly over personal status was doing more harm than good, and that Ben-Dahan’s intentions will have the exact opposite effect. He said those couples who choose to marry privately have no incentive to seek a divorce in rabbinical courts, as they could be arrested while trying to receive a get. In other words, the law would undermine the very cause it was meant to uphold.

“If we want to get people to marry through the rabbinate, we shouldn't be doing it by holding a gun to their head, and threatening to put them in jail,” Farber said.

Various estimates put the number of alternative Israeli weddings taking place every year at 7,000, and there is widespread support for them: a poll earlier this year found that 66 percent of Israeli Jews and 74% of non-Haredi Israeli Jews support recognition of civil marriage and non-Orthodox marriages. Additionally, more than 67% of Israeli Jews support joint efforts between Israel and world Jewry for freedom of marriage in Israel.

Farber explained that for his group and others fighting for a wider acceptance of Jewish options in religious life – like Hiddush, Tzohar and Mavoi Satum – the Tzohar law was not the biggest achievement of the 19th Knesset.

“We had a lot of accomplishments in the past Knesset, the first being the Conversion bill,” he said, referring to a cabinet decision to allow municipal chief rabbis to perform conversions. That decision widens access to the conversion system for non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and allows the implementation of more liberal attitudes toward their conversion within the Orthodox world, including the conversion of minors.

Although that law passed only as a government order and not full-fledged legislation, it was an important first step.

“The Tzohar law didn’t fundamentally change any power structure,” Farber said. “The Conversion law was the first legislation since 1971 that fundamentally changed the power structure in Israel, that took power away from the rabbinate. That made a very very big difference. It was a great accomplishment.”

Farber is buoyed up over the active support being given by North American Jewry. Two weeks ago, a new organization called J-Rec (Jewish Religious Equality Coalition) met for 3½ hours to formulate a working strategy to impact Israeli law.

Formed by the American Jewish Committee, it is made up of leaders of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements, several liberal Orthodox groups, and the National Council of Jewish Women, New Israel Fund, and National Policy Forum.

Their aim is to persuade Israeli leaders that Jerusalem is on the verge of losing support from the next generation of American Jews – 90 percent of whom are non-Orthodox – if the Orthodox monopoly continues; and that the very future of Israel’s relationship with world Jewry is in danger if the Chief Rabbinate continues to maintain sole monopoly over matters of personal status like marriage, divorce and conversion.

The Jewish Federations of North America has begun its own effort, called iRep (Israel Religious Expression Platform) to promote freedom of choice in Israel, and may join forces with the coalition in the future.

“I am encouraged by the fact that American Jewish organizations are investing time and resources in the future of Jewish Israel,” said Farber, “because it helps the fight for personal-status issues not only for citizens in Israel, but it affects the Jewish people as a whole.”

He is worried about what happens next, what kind of coalition will be formed after the next elections, and what efforts will be made to roll back legislation.

“Everything is possible,” said Farber. “It really depends on how people vote, how the government is constructed. Right now everyone in playing roulette. Should the next government shape up in a way that is positive, then we have a lot of momentum going in our direction. Should it go the other direction, then we will have less.”

Elections for the 20th Knesset are set for March 17.

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