Early this week, Israel’s ultra-orthodox parties marked a double victory. First, the Ministerial Legislation Committee approved a bill giving the Chief Rabbinate exclusive control over conversions. The bill means that private orthodox conversions will no longer be accepted by Israeli authorities, as stipulated last year by the Supreme Court. The government also decided to “freeze” plans of creating a mixed-gender pavilion in the Western Wall complex dedicated for non-orthodox prayer . After years of struggles on both issues, Shas and Agudat Israel managed to put an end to two developments that challenged the so-far-undisputed monopoly of Orthodox Judaism on Israelis’ lives.
Through Jewish ceremonies to public transportation on Saturdays and Kashrut regulations, the Rabbanut determines who is Jewish, what is a Jewish lifestyle, and how the Israeli-Jewish collective should behave. Many Israelis, both secular and religious, regard Orthodox Judaism as the only legitimate way to practice Judaism, and for years only few Israelis dared doubt this paradigm.
Nevertheless, as the winds of change blow, for the past decade alternatives to Orthodox Judaism have been springing up in the public sphere, creating a new social movement of liberal Judaism that was absent thus far. NGOs such as ‘Israel Hofsheet’ (Free Israel) have begun to inform more and more Israelis about options for marriage outside of the Rabbanut. Private initiatives such as ‘Noa-Tanua’ and ‘Shabus’ who offer public transportation on Saturdays, and ‘Hashgacha Pratit’ who offer alternative kashrut supervision for restaurants, represent a growing belief that the Rabbanut is archaic and corrupt , and no longer deserves its monopoly over Judaism in Israel.
Although these grassroots organizations were not easily accepted to the consensus and are still controversial, they have been gaining prominence, especially among young secular Jews who are attempting to reclaim their Jewish identity. By broadening the definitions enforced by the Rabbanut, this movement seeks to make Jewish life more accessible, approachable, and flexible to a larger number of Israelis. As these organizations gain momentum (already 1 out of 5 Jews in Israel chooses not to marry in the Rabbanut), the ultra-orthodox parties are pulling back fiercely in order to restore their status.
The past week’s events are another escalation in the Israeli battle over Judaism, and diaspora Jews, who are inevitably impacted by the results, are left in the crossfire. The actions of the religious parties indicate that they are so committed to maintaining the Rabbanut’s political authority that they are willing to strain the relationship between diaspora Jews and Israel and the relationship between all non-orthodox Jews and Israel.
The essence of the contention lies in recognizing non-orthodox denominations as equally legitimate in the Jewish homeland. Concerning the conversion bill, the Rabbanut is worried that the acceptance of private Orthodox conversions that are not under their supervision could set precedent for the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions in the future. The necessity to freeze the Western Wall plan derives from the plan’s establishment of a non-Orthodox steering committee for the third platform, thus acknowledging the claim of Reform and Conservative Jews over religious practice. Under the status quo agreements, the platform belongs to the rabbi of the Western Wall, who acts under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinical Institute.
The two events exhibit a very nuanced underlined message, yet a dramatic one: for the Rabbanut and the ultra-orthodox parties, Judaism is not a nationality but a religion. This might not sound surprising, but the implications of this perception and its acceptance as consensus are grave, especially when Israel continuously declares itself to be a nation state. On the one hand, Israel rejects the concept of the one-state democratic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of the shared Jewish nationalism, but on the other hand, the government allows the Rabbanut to treat many people who share this national heritage as second class citizens. Furthermore, this perception invalidates the Law of Return and the role Israel plays as the safehouse for those of Jewish descent since they yield their legitimacy from the national aspects, not the religious.
In Israel’s fractured multi-partisan political system, where the ultra-orthodox parties have a pivotal position on any governmental decision, tangible change promoting religious openness faces insurmountable obstacles. The issue of constructing a gender-mixed prayer pavilion has been a result of nearly 30 years of protest and legal petitions by Women of the Wall and other liberal Jewish groups who demand the right to practice Judaism based on their own traditions. Although the compromise reached in early 2016 was silently accepted by the religious ultra-Orthodox parties and understood as the only way to resolve the quagmire, the ultra-orthodox street was outraged and demanded its representatives fight against this “blasphemy”, ultimately threatening to break the coalition.
Well aware of the problematic circumstances, Netanyahu proclaimed that it will be difficult to uphold the plan under the current constraints of the coalition. After months of foot-dragging by the government, the Supreme Court reproached the government’s inaction and demanded execution of the plan. However, nothing changed until this week, when the plan was officially folded back into the drawer.
Although Netanyahu threatened to bring down the coalition a few months ago under the pretext of the injustice done to the public servants in the Israel Broadcasting Authority (that he himself later aided closing), this week’s events show that Netanyahu is not confident to break the coalition and hold new elections. It is not because he does not care about these religious issues, but he is caught between a rock and a hard place. Netanyahu clearly understands the implications of the latest events on the his support in the diaspora (and he greatly needs international Jewish communities to support his actions and to finance his campaigns), but he is tied to the immediate considerations of maintaining his administration, especially when he is rumored to be in dispute with Sheldon Adelson.
After the decision to freeze the Western Wall plan, Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency, released a furious statement against the “government’s decisions undermining Zionism”. Consequently, the JA cancelled its meetings with Netanyahu, as did the leaders of the Reform movement.
The ball is now in the court of Israel Beitenu, a party that promotes the agenda of Russian Jews, a population that suffers from continuous discrimination since many of them are Jewish by nationality but not according to Orthodox law. MK Sofa Landver, the Minister of Aliya, threatened to appeal the conversion bill even though it contradicts the party’s coalition agreement not to interfere with religion and state issues. Liberman, the head of Israel Beitenu, called his “friends in the national camp to return to sanity, avoid rupturing the Jewish nation and walk in the path of Herzel, Jabutinsky and Max Nordau”, but he will have to decide if this issue is worth seceding from the coalition.
Whatever Liberman will choose, the undisputed connection between Israel and the Jewish people worldwide is loosening, and it’s not very clear how it can be fixed without a new coalition and with the continued monopoly of the ultra-orthodox over Jewish life in Israel.