Quarterly iRep Update On Key Issues Relating To Religion And State In Israel
Volume 9, November 2018
This Religion and State Update covers the period from August-October 2018.
The Kotel (Western Wall)
In February 2018, construction started on a permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Ezrat Israel, the Robinson’s Arch area of the Western Wall. Because it is an archaeological site, renovations require the approval of a ministerial committee. After two ministers resigned, the work was approved by a make-shift committee of PM Netanyahu and Minister Steinitz. The renovation work is underway after special approval from the Jerusalem municipality thanks to a loophole that allows fast tracking construction work to create handicap accessible public sites. Previously, at the urging of Ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, the Government of Israel voted on June 25, 2017, to formally freeze the Kotel Resolution, which calls for the construction of the new pavilion. Despite the freeze, PM Netanyahu announced that the government will continue its efforts to build a new pluralistic prayer plaza at Ezrat Israel, Robinson Arch area of the Western Wall.
The recommendations made by former minister Moshe Nissim in early June were put on hold, and no further progress was made by the government in this area. The State must respond to the Supreme Court in regards to the recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions in December 2018. Nissim was appointed by PM Netanyahu to make recommendations on the conversion issue after public outcry from government approval of a bill that stipulated the State recognize only conversions implemented under the supervision of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.
Nissim recommended establishing a new state-run Orthodox Authority – not under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate- in order to speed up the process of ongoing conversions for hundreds of thousands of Israelis. According to the document, only traditional Jewish law (Halakhic) conversions done in Israel will be recognized, but they will also officially recognize conversions performed abroad by Reform and Conservative Rabbis. This proposal recommends that the Chief Rabbis be involved in appointing the judges (dayanim) for the new Conversion Authority, but does not give them veto power over the appointments.
The Ultra-Orthodox leadership opposes the recommendations, because it strips the Rabbinate of sole control over the conversion process and grants official recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions (from abroad). Minister Arye Deri of Shas declared that the government will not accept the recommendations, and indeed there has been no progress on this proposal since June.
In September the Jerusalem District Court applied the Supreme Court’s previous ruling and ordered the Interior Ministry to register a woman who converted to Judaism in a private Orthodox rabbinical court as “Jewish.” Registering converts who converted in non-state rabbinical courts as Jewish has been routine since a 2002 Supreme Court ruling made in favor of Reform and Conservative converts. This is the first time it has been applied for private Orthodox conversions.
Marriage and Divorce
The 2018 Religion and State Index published by Hiddush, a nonprofit working to advance religious freedom (and an iRep grantee), showed that 70% of the Jewish population wants the State of Israel to recognize all forms of marriage-including civil, Reform and Conservative weddings. In 2009, only 53% were in favor of recognizing such marriages.
Equality for the Streams
The Jewish People Policy Institute published a new study in October which found that 12-13% of the Jewish population in Israel identifies with non-Orthodox streams. This is the highest rate of affiliation documented to date, and it continues an upward trend that we have seen since 2013, the first year a poll measured this statistic.
In early November, after the tragic Pittsburgh shooting, the Knesset hosted a special session called “The Time Has Come to Recognize the Streams”. Fifteen Coalition and Opposition MKs came forward together to say that in the wake of the shooting, the Government of Israel should take the necessary steps to recognize all Jewish streams.
The survey also found a significant rise in the number of Jewish citizens who would prefer marriage options outside of the Rabbinate for themselves or their family members: a rise from 37% in 2015, to 50% in 2017, and now 53% in 2018. Even under the current legal status, where alternative marriages are not recognized by the State, and couples who choose them are only considered a “common law married couple”, there is a strong preference for alternatives to the Rabbinate: 67% of the population prefers an alternative to the Rabbinate for getting married, whether it be Secular, private Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, or no ceremony at all. Only 33% of the Jewish public prefer a Rabbinate marriage ceremony today.
In August, Interior minister Deri notified four cities that he doesn’t approve their bylaws allowing for certain convenience stores to be open on Shabbat. The four cities—Holon, Givatayim, Herzliya and Modi’in—join Rishon LeZion, which received a similar notice a month and a half earlier. The Rishon municipality submitted a petition to the Supreme Court to force Deri to approve their bylaw, and at least some of the other four municipalities intend to join the petition.
The Interior Ministry explained that Minister Deri rejected the proposals because the municipalities did not satisfactorily explain why it was necessary to open the businesses on Shabbat. The municipalities maintain that the residents of each city should decide which businesses should be open on Shabbat, in what neighborhoods, and under what regulations.
In August, another Shabbbat controversy erupted when the Minister of Transportation requested to approve the closure of the Ayalon Freeway in Tel Aviv to build a bridge over the highway. This project was far along in its planning stages and had already received all the required government approvals.
But, when they announced that the work would require closing the freeway on the weekend, the ultra-Orthodox parties threatened a coalition crisis if the work on Shabbat was approved. These threats also led to more criticism from the general non-religious public. The Minister of Transportation, Yisrael Katz, submitted to the pressure and announced that the construction would be stopped altogether.
In August, the IDF published a list of 80 civilian institutions that the army had contracted to give lectures and facilitate various activities for soldiers. Most of the organizations the army has authorized to lecture and educate soldiers on “Jewish identity” are Orthodox; some of these organizations even have a declared goal to make secular soldiers religious. The educational activities authorized for junior officers are to be provided by three or four Orthodox organizations and no pluralistic organizations. For platoon commanders and officers of higher ranks, one pluralistic organization has been approved. The activities of two other pluralistic organizations — Bina and the religious seminary at Oranim — were restricted to captains and lieutenant colonels, respectively. A source at the IDF told reporters that the pluralistic position is seen as too complicated for the soldiers, while the Orthodox organizations do not pose such a problem.
In September the Jerusalem District Court declared that the Ultra-Orthodox Kol Berama radio station’s policy to exclude women from the airwaves is illegal, and fined them NIS 1 million ($280,000). This is the final ruling on a six year class action law suit against the radio station, brought by Kolech, an organization for Orthodox women and the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement. In previous proceedings the courts had approved the class action suit and accepted Kolech as a representative for the Ultra-Orthodox women, in absence of a woman willing to come out publicly against the radio station. But, when they announced that the work would require closing the freeway on the weekend, the ultra-Orthodox parties threatened a coalition crisis if the work on Shabbat was approved. These threats also led to more criticism from the general non-religious public. The Minister of Transportation, Yisrael Katz, submitted to the pressure and announced that the construction would be stopped altogether.
In September, the Ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party (part of the United Torah Judaism alliance) announced that it will remove an article in its charter stipulating that only men can join the party and participate as candidates in local and national elections.
This change was in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this summer that recommended they consider such a change. In July, the Supreme Court held a hearing on a petition by a number of women’s organizations and Ultra-Orthodox women that demanded the Ultra-Orthodox party allow women to run for political office. A petition was also filed against Shas, which has a similar clause in its charter. While it is certainly a symbolic victory, it is unclear what real effect this change will have, since its charter gives a council of rabbis the power to decide which candidates are appointed to the Knesset.
In October Yisrael Hofsheet (iRep grantee) published the first ever Free Cities Index which rates municipalities based on the diversity of religious services available, such as availability of public transportation on Shabbat and their treatment of the LGBT, Reform and Conservative communities. In the October 2018 municipal elections in many cities the local secular civil groups organized as political groups and were able to win sits in the local council previously held by religious parties. In some cities, such as Petah Tikva, Nes Tziona and Kiryat Motzkin, the higher voter turnout eliminated the religious party Habayit Hayehudi altogether, due to the higher votes required per seat. In addition, more women ran for office and were elected, including the dramatic win in Beit Shemesh of Aliza Bloch, an Orthodox woman who ran against the Ultra-Orthodox block.
In October, the issue of gay men’s eligibility for surrogacy came up once again in the Knesset and again the bill was rejected. The issue first arose in the Knesset the prior July, leading to a heated public debate. At that time, PM Netanyahu declared his support for the bill but then voted against that clause drawing the outrage of the LGBT community. When the issue returned to the Knesset, Netanyahu was criticized again for voting against the bill, claiming a lack of support. This led to additional condemnation from LGBT rights groups who contended that the PM could have advanced the legislation with the help of the opposition, had Netanyahu been willing to challenge his Ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.