December 10, 2018

The Aliyah exchange, part 2: On the effect of the Israeli rabbinate’s discrimination

Jessica Fishman moved to Israel after graduating from Indiana University with a degree in Journalism and Business. She spent her first few years in the country serving in the Israel Defense Forces, learning the Hebrew language, and getting acclimated to the country. Fishman was the author of the popular Aliyah Survival Blog and the story of her struggles with the Israeli rabbinate has been featured in leading Israeli and Jewish media.

This exchange will focus on Fishman’s upcoming memoir, Chutzpah and High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land. Part one can be found here.

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Dear Jessica,

In part one you used words like “my grieving” and “my difficult and negative experience” in reference to your dealings with the Israeli authorities and the rabbinate, who denied you the right to get married and your status as a Jew after you made aliyah and served in the military. Your anger at Israel's problematic and inconsistent attitude toward religion and state is definitely understandable.

But many people whose religious status or choice of partner aren't “kosher” according to the rabbinate choose to simply formalize their marriage abroad, a practice that the state recognizes. Many of them have big wedding services in Israel and continue living their lives without any regard for the rabbinate and how it views them. No one questions their Judaism on a daily basis, and they are just like the rest of us for all intents and purposes.

Why was your episode with the rabbinate such a defining moment in your 10-year stay in Israel? Why is this a big problem rather than a simple bureaucratic annoyance?

Yours,

Shmuel

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Hello Shmuel,

Thank you again for this opportunity.

This is an interesting question that you put forth and one that many people have asked me. However, I always find it hard to answer. The reason I find it hard to answer is not because I don’t have a well-formed and rational response, but because I am always surprised by the premise and perceived legitimacy of this question.

First, I’d like to point out that the Rabbinate controls some of the most personal and important life moments of the Jewish lifecycle in Israel – birth, marriage, and death. This means that all Israeli Jews are denied the freedom of choice for very intimate decisions. It also means that hundreds of thousands of Israelis who do not meet the strict ultra-Orthodox definition of “who is a Jew” are excluded from enjoying basic human rights and dignity.

Next I would like to address the assumption that this discrimination stops at the chuppah and as such is not a daily hindrance. History has shown us that government-sanctioned and institutionalized discrimination sets not only a tone, but also establishes an imposed collective ethical standard. The United States has also had its fair share of discrimination in the institution of marriage. If we look back to our not-so-distant American history, interracial marriage used to be illegal. When this was the law of the land, the population itself strongly and even violently opposed these types of marriages. Today, as the laws have changed, the overwhelming majority of American society accepts and supports these relationships, marriages, and families. It has, rightfully, become unacceptable to oppose such marriages. The recent civil-rights struggle for same-sex marriage, starting at the state level and culminating with the recent landmark Supreme Court decision, Obergefell v Hodges, in which the Court found that marriage is a fundamental right and guaranteed to same-sex couples, showed us how quickly the government can change people’s hearts and minds. When a government marginalizes a class of people in marriage, then society as a whole is legitimized in discriminating against them. This condoning of discrimination occurs in both public and private spheres, including, but not limited to, the workplace, in education, when seeking healthcare, and serving in the military. It is not just discrimination by institutions, but also by individuals. In the United States, it might be using a racial or homophobic slur; in Israel it might be an ultra-Orthodox boy taunting a woman in Jerusalem by calling her a shiksa or a secular friend saying that Reform or Conservative Judaism is not really Judaism.

The last misconception that I want to touch upon is the assertion that simply going abroad to formalize your marriage and then having a ceremony or party in Israel to celebrate is an acceptable solution. There are two problems with this approach. While I am in a financial position that I could do this, many cannot afford to travel abroad. Therefore this type of marriage is only attainable for those who can afford it; but they still have been relegated to being second-class citizens. While those who cannot afford it are simply unable to marry. Is this really aligned with our Jewish values that those who don’t have the financial means to travel are denied the right to marry? I hope everyone’s answer to this question is a resounding no. The second dispute that I have with this is the general assumption that it is in any form acceptable that people like me, who bear the full duties and responsibilities of a citizen of Israel, would actually have more rights in a country in which we are not citizens than in the one that we swore to protect and defend with our lives while serving in its army. There is no reason that anybody should have to feel so marginalized in their own country.

So, in my opinion the question should not be why I took it so hard. The real question should be, why isn’t everyone else finding this situation unacceptable in a Jewish and democratic society? Where is the outrage? Is it because secular Israelis have given up and given into the control of the Rabbinate, while American Jews feel as if they need to unfailingly support Israel without any nuances? The most important lesson that I learned while going through my experience, and I think is becoming a very prevalent sentiment following the recent presidential election in the U.S., is that there is a difference between nationalism and patriotism. The former is blind support of your country. The latter is when you love you country so much that you know it is necessary to stand up, speak out, and constructively criticize the government when it is leading the country in the wrong direction. It is only hard introspection that can lead to positive change, and thus allow a country live up to its potential. True Zionism also includes dissent.