When it was formed in 1948, Israel was declared a place for the world’s Jews to call home after almost two millennia of Jewish exile and persecution and the recent horrors of the Holocaust. In its first five years, Israel was a refuge state, roughly doubling its population by accepting 338,000 European Jews who survived the Second World War and 354,000 Middle Eastern and North African Jews who were fleeing persecution or had been expelled from their homes. Many years have passed since Israel’s foundation, but anti-Semitism is still alive and kicking: Jews living outside Israel experience unacceptably high rates of targeted hate crimes and terror attacks. The pernicious effects of modern anti-Semitism are particularly pronounced in France. A full ten percent of French Jewry emigrated to Israel between 2000 and 2017 and polls suggest that, following the 2015 Paris attacks, 80% of French Jews considered emigrating to Israel. The Jewish people still need a refuge state, but has Israel lived up to its promise of welcoming all of them?
Since its foundation, Israelis have been arguing over whether Israel’s existence is rooted in Judaism or in the Jewish people. While Israel is officially a home to all Jewish people, some of its institutions favor a specific denomination of Judaism, to the detriment of the majority of Jews. Jews are well known for arguing about matters of religion, so it should be far from surprising that Judaism has many denominations, each with its own inner divisions and disagreements. Nevertheless, Israeli state institutions have made the Orthodox denomination Israel’s de facto official version of Judaism, even though its adherents only represent 20–22% of Israeli and around 10% of US Jews (81 – 90% of the world’s Jewish population is roughly equally divided between the US and Israel). Orthodox Judaism is the most hardline major Jewish denomination and the only major denomination in which the Torah is considered to be the literal word of God, despite its clashes with modern ethics and science. For example, most Orthodox thought leaders consider biblical myths, such as the Genesis creation narrative, to be literally true, despite overwhelming evidence to contrary. Scientists have established that Earth’s plants did not exist before the sun, that humans share a common ancestry with other living beings and that mankind did not come into existence six thousand years ago. Nevertheless, due to protestations from Orthodox activists and politicians, Israel is among the few developed countries where evolution is largely ignored in K12 science and biology classes and even in nature museums and exhibitions, despite its central role in every science that studies living beings, from medicine to psychology. The ejection of scientific knowledge from Israel’s places of education in favor of religious dogma is an affront to any truth-seeking individual. In addition, the institutionalization of Orthodox Judaism, perpetuated mainly by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, negatively affects non-Orthodox Israeli Jews on a daily basis.
In 1953, Israel legally recognized the Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate as the supreme authority on Judaism. The powers vested in the rabbinate have led to many instances in which non-Orthodox Jews have faced injustice and been prevented from practicing key elements of their religious beliefs. For example, Israel only acknowledges Jewish Israeli marriages if the wedding ceremony was officiated over by a rabbinate-accredited Orthodox rabbi (who must be a man), despite the fact that 68% of Israeli Jews disagreed with this stipulation when polled. The rabbinate is highly selective about marriage eligibility and will not allow a person it considers Jewish to marry a person whom it considers non-Jewish, even if that person has converted to a non-Orthodox form of Judaism. Nor are couples who wish to have an unofficial ceremony free from the whims of the rabbinate, which can— and has—complained to Israeli police about unofficial Jewish ceremonies, leading to the police interrogation of those involved. Shockingly, an unofficial Jewish wedding ceremony conducted in Israel and officiated by a rabbi who is not rabbinate-accredited (i.e. not Orthodox) can lead to two years imprisonment for both the couple and the officiating rabbi. Fortunately, despite pressure and complaints from the rabbinate, Israel’s secular courts have not been upholding that law, at least for now.
Unfortunately, not all Israeli courts are secular. If married Jewish couples wish to get divorced, they have to go through the Rabbinical Court: an extension of the Chief Rabbinate, in which women cannot serve as judges, bound by an arcane mix of secular and religious laws. For example, in a case involving a divorced couple with a newborn son, the father insisted that the boy should be circumcised, while the mother, who had primary custody, refused. If the Rabbinical Court were bound only by religious laws, the mother would probably have lost primary custody for this. Instead, when the case was brought by the father, the court ruled that the mother must circumcise the boy and be fined $150 for every day until the boy’s circumcision. Fortunately, the decision was overturned by Israel’s (secular) upper court.
Among the Rabbinical Court’s religiously-based laws is the dictate that a couple can only divorce if both partners agree. This leaves many—especially women—stuck in a legal limbo while the Rabbinical Court uses absurd measures to force the refusing party to agree to divorce. For example, the court recently prevented the burial of the mother of a man whose wife had been denied a divorce for more than a decade, even though the man had already remarried in the US. The consequences of being refused a divorce are no laughing matter. If a woman (but not a man) who is denied a divorce has a child with a person other than her legal husband, the child will be considered by the rabbinate as a bastard—Orthodox Judaism’s version of an untouchable. If the bastard child eventually gets married, which is only possible with another bastard or a convert, his or her children will also be considered bastards, as will the children’s children, and so on. In this way, the supposedly liberal state of Israel punishes individuals for the sins of previous generations.
The Rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage and divorce is not the only area in which non-Orthodox Jews face injustices. For example, the Rabbinate also controls who is allowed to issue kosher certificates and only allows Orthodox rabbis to issue such certificates. It is illegal for non-Orthodox rabbis to issue kosher certificates, and it is illegal for businesses to show such certificates in the absence of a Rabbinate-approved kosher certificate. While some businesses can get around this restriction by showing certificates with synonyms for kosher supervision, this could easily devolve into a game of whack-a-mole, with legislators constantly restricting the use of various synonyms of kosher. The rabbinate is indeed pushing for such measures. Finally, Israel’s systemic favoritism towards Orthodox Judaism is demonstrated by the fact that Orthodox institutions are acknowledged and financially supported by the state. Such institutions include yeshivas, where many adult (ultra)Orthodox men study the bible throughout their lives, while receiving both an exemption from full military service and a monthly stipend from the state. These accommodations are generally reserved for Orthodox institutions, and are seen as excessive by the majority of Israeli Jews.
There are many ways to be Jewish, yet, by allowing the Chief Rabbinate to define a single correct way and getting involved in matters of religion more generally, Israel is actively excluding and discriminating against most Jews. Israel’s treatment of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations is shamefully reminiscent of how Jews were treated in the Soviet Union and is nothing like what we should expect from the state of the Jews. The fact that Israel infringes on non-Orthodox Jews’ freedom of religion by outlawing important and harmless practices, such as holding non-Orthodox weddings and assigning non-Orthodox kosher certificates, is inexcusable. The only major step left to take before Israel’s treatment of non-Orthodox Jews roughly matches the Soviet Union’s restrictions on Jews is to forbid non-Orthodox individuals from describing themselves as rabbis and outlaw non-Orthodox congregations. Given the rabbinate’s actions and the proclamations of its senior figures, it seems likely that they would enact such restrictions if given the power to do so. The Sephardi Chief Rabbi already describes Reformed Jewish synagogues as forbidden places of idolatry (which is biblically punishable by stoning to death), claims that Reformed Judaism—Judaism’s second largest denomination—ruins Judaism and backs violent disturbances of Reformed Jewish prayers at the Western Wall. His predecessor describes Reformed Jews as evil and worse than Holocaust deniers. All this forms a stark contrast to the views of 81% of Israel’s non-Orthodox Jews, who are in favor of equal treatment of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish denominations.
Israel’s wildly unpopular enforcement of Orthodox practices is unbecoming of a country whose founding document promises “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants” and “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” These distortions of the Zionist ideal have been getting worse in recent years. Israeli Orthodox Jews vote in relative unison for Orthodox religious parties, while the vote of the rest of the Jews is generally split by economic and foreign policy disagreements. These divisions allow the Orthodox religious parties to act as political kingmakers with outsized power over Israel’s parliament, which they often use to force their religious beliefs and practices on others.
Israel’s favoritism towards Orthodox Judaism is failing the majority of the Jewish people, and Jewish voters and supporters of Israel have been allowing this to happen for too long. This problem will be resolved if Israelis take their cue from secular societies and establish secular norms in Israeli politics. If this happened, political figures who attempted to enforce their version of Judaism on others would pay a political price: they would become unelectable and be kept away from positions of power. Non-religious political figures who circumvent secular norms by enabling Israel’s theocratic elements for political gain would face similar consequences. Otherwise, Israeli institutions will keep favoring Orthodox Judaism, to the detriment of most Jewish people.
Israel should serve as a warning to those in secular societies of the pitfalls of the entanglement of religion and state, the primary result of which is the loss of religious freedom for all but a hardline minority, which is free to impose its religion on others. This pattern has been repeatedly observed throughout history, and shows that, even today, secular political norms serve both the religious and the non-religious.