With Israeli voters likely headed to the polls next March, religion and state is emerging as one of the most pressing issues.
An issue that has animated American Jews and their supporters in Israel has come front and center in the Jewish state, where the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate has long held tight control over marriage and other lifecycle events and Orthodox parties hold disproportionate political clout.
A renewed call last Friday by Yisrael Beiteinu leader and Israeli kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman for a series of steps that would loosen Orthodox control over marriage, transportation on the Sabbath and conversions to Judaism is giving the issue new urgency.
Benny Gantz, leader of the opposition Blue and White party, also ran on a platform that supported civil marriage and public transportation on Shabbat. Gantz has also refused to include the Orthodox parties in his attempts to form a ruling coalition.
“What will be further crystalized in the third round of voting will be the existential debate over whether Israel is a Jewish and democratic state,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, CEO of Hiddush, an organization advocating freedom of religion and equality in Israel. “Likud and [its current leader, Benjamin] Netanyahu put all of their eggs in the basket of the Orthodox and the extreme Zionist Orthodox. The opposition [party is expected to] voice a commitment to reshuffling the religion-state deck and moving in the direction of greater religious freedom and pluralism.”
Regev’s latest polling found that about 64 percent of Israeli Jews said they are politically right or right-of-center, and that about 65 percent said they are religiously secular or traditional and not so religious.
Sixty-nine percent of respondents also said that support for religious freedom was a significant factor in their vote in the September election.
“When these are the choices, it is clear where a majority of the public is, and there is a good basis to assume that in the third round more people will vote based on this consideration,” he said.
Regev’s assessment was shared by Uri Keidar, executive director of Israel Hofsheet (Be Free Israel), a grassroots movement in Israel that promotes cultural and religious pluralism and protects civil rights.
“I do think that it’s safe to say that what we saw in the recent elections, in every recent poll and in the numbers we see on the ground … reflects a growing popularity of liberalizing the connection between religion and state in Israel, and that is becoming a significant factor that’s reflected in voting,” he said in an email.
Keidar pointed to a report last January from the Religious Services Ministry that found the number of Jews in Israel marrying through the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate had dropped in 2018 for the second straight year. The decline is seen as evidence of the growing resentment in Israel toward the Rabbinate and the power it wields, the ability of haredi Orthodox parties to make or break a governing coalition, as well as the desire of non-Orthodox Jews to marry on their own terms.
“Bottom line is that there’s an undeniable spike in the popularity of religion and state agendas,” Keidar added.
That would be good news for non-Orthodox Jewish religious leaders here and in Israel. They’d like their movements’ rabbis and leaders to be able to perform weddings and conversions and to receive their fair shares of state funding, just as secular Israelis want fewer restrictions on the Sabbath.
“Today, Israel is the only Western country in the world where Jews cannot celebrate their freedom of religion,” said Yizhar Hess, executive director and CEO of the Conservative Judaism movement in Israel, known as Masorti. “This is changing from the bottom up. The average Israeli is no longer willing to accept religious coercion. And sooner rather than later we will see Israel in a different place when it comes to religious pluralism.”
There are an estimated 800,000 Jews in Israel who self-identify as Reform (8 percent) or Conservative (5 percent) Jews, according to a 2019 report of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a nonprofit independent policy planning think tank in Israel. While American-style movements like Reform and Conservative are hardly mass phenomena in Israel, adherents to those denominations are growing.
The 800,000 figure is “dramatically higher than it was 10 years ago,” according to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform movement in North America.
“It tells you that Israelis explore other forms of Judaism and find it appealing to them,” said Rabbi Jacobs. “There are many authentic ways to live a Jewish life and they all should be available.”
He added, “It is clear that the majority of Israelis care about matters of religion and state.”
Rabbi Jacobs said there are large constituencies in Israel and among American Jews that support civil marriage within the country. That “would be a real game changer in terms of providing equality and choice for people at a critical moment,” he said. “Israel is the only country where there is not freedom to marry. On that we agree.”
In addition, he said there is a need to convince the government to provide “equal funding to the different streams of Judaism.”
Hess said the issue is now before Israel’s High Court of Justice.
“In a state where there is no separation between religion and state, and only one stream of Judaism is funded by the government, we have a huge challenge of how to serve the people who have an interest in our theology and are used to getting religious services from the government,” Rabbi Jacobs said, noting that this issue could take years to resolve.
Signs Of Change?
Lieberman won eight seats in September’s election (up from five in April’s vote), making his cooperation crucial for anyone who wants to form a ruling coalition under Israel’s parliamentary system. A hawk who has long appealed to Israel’s largely secular Russian immigrant population, he ran on the religion-state issue.
Last week, he vowed that he would not compromise further on religion- state issues. He announced a set of demands for joining in a coalition government that included transportation and limited trade on the Sabbath, and unlimited rights for civil marriage; he also demanded that municipal rabbis be given authority to carry out conversions and that there be an implementation of the Western Wall plan, which called for an expanded area for pluralistic prayer at the holy site.
Keidar pointed out also that Gantz, of the opposition Blue and White party, “ran on a super-liberal platform on those issues, supporting civil marriage, public transportation on Shabbat and other similar positions, and also ran a campaign calling for a secular government during the last two weeks of the elections in September.”
Though exit polls show that the top issues for Israelis at the voting booth are socioeconomic concerns, whom they wanted as prime minister and security, Lieberman’s showing in September’s election suggests that religion-state issues are clearly on Israeli voters’ minds.
Should these issues move to the forefront in the next elections, it would be “good news for Israel and very good news for Israel-diaspora relations,” said Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue and former executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.
“The ultra-Orthodox parties supported by Prime Minister Netanyahu for narrow political reasons have been responsible for the worst crisis between Israel and diaspora Jews in the history of the State of Israel,” he added. “All of us should hope that in the next government the ultra-Orthodox parties have far less influence than they have had up until now. … It would change the tone, change the vocabulary and allow for some of the open sores that have developed over the last 10 years to begin to heal.”
But Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, said she is not so sure how a third election would play out.
“The Israel that I think would be better for Israelis — Jews and non-Jews and for Jews around the world — is one based on democracy, equality for everybody, religious freedom and an end of the occupation,” she said. “Will the elections get us there? I think it is too early to make a prediction.”
Similarly, Rabbi Maurice Harris, Israel affairs specialist at Reconstructing Judaism, said he too found it difficult to predict.
“I don’t believe in religious coercion and people should have freedom to choose — whether it is taking a bus on Shabbat or going out for a meal on Shabbat,” he said. “I have no idea how urgent those issues will play out in a third election. So much could happen between now and March.”