Quarterly iRep Update On Key Issues Relating To Religion And State In Is
Volume 11, May 2019
This Religion and State update covers the period from February 2019 – May 2019.
Your gift to the Federation powers the Israel Religious Expression Platform (iRep), an initiative to promote pluralism in Israel. The intent of this program is to support Jewish diversity and freedom of religious expression in Israel.
The Kotel (Western Wall)
During the Women of the Wall’s Adar II Rosh Chodesh prayer service (March 7, 2019), participants and supporters of WOW were attacked by ultra-Orthodox demonstrators, some sustaining injuries. Thousands of young ultraOrthodox women filled the women’s section and pushed those who were praying. The attack was the culmination of a public campaign against WOW and the Reform movement in ultra-Orthodox press and in billboards.
In May the High Court of Justice heard a case of emerging Jewish communities around the world and their recognition by the State. The Abayudaya community from Uganda is a community of over 2,000 members who adopted Judaism about a century ago but were officially converted around a decade ago by Conservative rabbis.One of their members wished to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return but was denied entry on the grounds that the whole community is not recognized by the Ministry of Interior as a Jewish community.
According to Israeli law, a Jew is someone “who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.” The Israeli Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that a conversion done outside Israel within the framework of a “recognized Jewish community” should be recognized by the Interior Ministry for the purposes of the Law of Return.
As a matter of practice, the Interior Ministry accepts the accreditation of the Reform and Conservative movements, and of the Jewish Agency, about the status of a Jewish community as “recognized.” In 2014 the Ministry of Interior actually codified this practice and declared that a “recognized Jewish community” is any community that is accepted by a major Jewish denomination, and/or is recognized as a Jewish community by the Jewish Agency.
In 2016, the Jewish Agency declared that it recognized the Abayudaya community as a Jewish community beginning in 2009. Despite the recognition by the Conservative Movement and the Jewish Agency, and contrary to its regulations, the Ministry of Interior holds the positon that the community is not a recognized Jewish Community. The court has not made a decision yet.
Marriage and Divorce
In March, newspapers reported that Rabbinical Courts were using DNA testing to determine Jewish heritage in matters of marriage. According to news reports, this practice is used only in cases where an immigrant is from the Former Soviet Union. Avigdor Lieberman, the head of “Yisrael Beitenu“ (Israel Our Home) party which represents Russian-speaking Israelis, called upon the Chief Rabbis to resign over this finding.
In the run-up to this year’s Israeli elections on April 9th, iRep funded four projects aimed at elevating public discourse on marriage freedom. The goal was to capitalize on increased public awareness and turn it into an urgent call for change. Grants included three public campaigns targeting different audiences in an attempt to expand and diversify Israeli support for marriage freedom. The fourth grant was to collect polling data relevant to the issue of religious pluralism.
Yisrael Hofsheet (Be Free Israel), IMPJ (Reform) Movement, and the Masorti (Conservative) Movement – together the “Trio” - ran a national billboards campaign featuring pictures of couples under the marriage huppa with the slogan “Equal Love, Equal Marriage.” The campaign appeared on billboards in Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with smaller signs in Ashdod, Rishon Le’Zion, and Afula. The media company estimated that 3.5 million people viewed the billboards.
The campaign also included paid posts on Facebook, Instagram, Google ads in Hebrew and Russian, and paid ads in a major news website (Mako) as well as a Russian website.
Hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to the ads. Ads also ran in Russian language media outlets, yielding a much higher response rate which indicate the high relevancy of the issue to this audience.
A survey following the campaign showed that it reached 20%-25% of its target audience. The survey also found that those who were exposed to the campaign rated freedom of marriage as more important in their voting decision than it has been before. The survey also found that the campaign did NOT create contempt for the government but DID form a desire to vote for parties that promoted the issue as well as conviction that this issue can be advanced.
Two Orthodox organizations, Neemanei Torah Va`Avodah and Hashgacha Pratit – Chupot,organized campaigns targeting their constituents, the young religious voter. Advocating the need to expand marriage options beyond the Rabbinate, the response to both campaigns was positive.
In March, the Reform movement with support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, sponsored a triple wedding of Israeli citizens in a local synagogue to protest the Rabbinate’s refusal to marry the three couples. One couple was same sex, the second preferred an egalitarian service and the third was prohibited by the Rabbinate because they do not recognize the groom’s late mother’s conversion because she was deaf.
In May, Israel hosted the 2019 Eurovision song contest. The finale of the competition took place in Tel Aviv on a Saturday evening. Ultra-Orthodox parties protested the desecration of Shabbat involved in producing this international event. Chief Rabbi Lau instructed religious Jews around the world to observe Shabbat 20 minutes longer in order to “make up” for the desecration of Shabbat by others.
The official reason for the early elections of April 2019 was the inability of the government to pass legislation that will create an acceptable legal policy on the draft of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men’s army service. A bill proposed by the Ministry of Defense was approved by the government but rejected by a faction within the ultraOrthodox parties, and no solution was reached.) The new legislation is needed since the validity of the current legal arrangement, granting almost all Yeshiva students exemption from army service, expires in July 2019. In the coalition negotiations following April’s elections Avigdor Lieberman insisted that the bill which passed the first stages of legislation in the previous Knesset be adopted with no changes. Intense negotiations took place, and the ultra-Orthodox parties compromised their positions on the issue, but Lieberman continued to insist that “not one comma” could be altered on the current bill. Negotiations continued until the very last minute, but it became clear that Lieberman would not budge.
Officially, this is the reason Lieberman and Netanyahu did not reach a coalition agreement that was needed for Netanyahu in order to form a government. The Israeli public at large does not currently take an active role in the discussion of the issue. A March 2019 poll by Hiddush revealed that this issue ranked 4th among ”religion and state issues”, well after public transportation on Shabbat and freedom of marriage. Since no agreement was reached, the old law which granted ultra-Orthodox men exemption from IDF conscription became void. As no new legislation exists, officially the IDF can draft all relevant ultra-Orthodox men, though this is unlikely.
2019 National Elections
On April 9th Israel held national elections for the 21st Knesset. For a full explanation of how Israel’s elections work, please see JFNA’s Israeli Election Primer.
Despite Netanyahu emerging as a clear winner and the 21st Knesset sworn in, Netanyahu was unable to form a coalition of at least 61 Knesset members by the deadline of May 30. Under Israeli law, once the deadline passed, the President can consider alternative members of Knesset and give them a chance to form a government. In order to avoid that scenario (and the risk of a different leader emerging), the Prime Minister gathered a majority of MKs to vote on a law to disperse the parliament, making the 21st Knesset the shortest-lived in Israel’s history, by far.
The short-lived 21st Knesset and results of the April 2019 election did yield some important mentions through the lens of religious/political life in Israel:
- The minimum threshold necessary to enter the Knesset is 3.25% of the popular vote. Several parties did not pass the threshold, including two right wing and religiously moderate parties – Zehut, led by Moshe Feiglin and the New Right, led by Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked.
- The ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and Yahadut HaTorah (Judaism of the Torah), won a combined 16 seats, two more than they had in the previous term. This would have given them more room to demand favorable policies in the current coalition negotiations.
- Avigdor Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beitenu was the only party taking part in the coalition negotiations with a secular agenda. In addition to his stance on ultra-Orthodox conscription, he also demanded that the Rabbinate roll back its policy to utilize DNA testing for couples from the Former Soviet Union marrying in Israel. Finally, he asked for veto power over any changes relating to religion and state.
While religion and state issues did not hold a central place in the April 2019 elections cycle most parties did include a significant section on “religion and state” in their political platform, including:
- Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party said it would adopt a policy to safeguard the Shabbat as a public holiday, while giving each person the opportunity to experience Shabbat in a way that meets their needs.
- The Labor party declared that it would fight for public transportation on Shabbat, as well as allow commerce.
- Meretz, Kulanu, Zehut and even Bennet’s New Right party all proposed a liberalization of Shabbat legislation.
Marriage was also covered in several party platforms.
- Blue and White, Labor, and Meretz parties all supported civil union or civil marriages.
- Not only the center/left parties proclaim support for a change in marriage laws: Kulanu declared support for a civil option for institutionalizing family life, Yisrael Beitanu supported civil marriage for all, the New Right suggested civil marriages with divorce at the control of the Rabbinate, and Zehut supported abolition of marriage registration altogether and allowing for these personal choices to be unrelated to the State mandated rights or privileges. Even the Arab Hadash-Ta`al party, departing from the usual silence of Arab parties on religion and state controversies, declared support for civil marriage for all.
Interestingly, all the parties that published a pluralism platform incorporated a section on Israeli-Diaspora relations, and all declared that they would work to improve the relationship, calling for respect for the diversity of the Jewish world. The Blue and White party made a commitment that the State of Israel should consider the effects on Diaspora Jewry before making decisions that could impact their wellbeing.