Perhaps the only positive aspect of the religious ruling made last week by 39 prominent rabbis in Israel — some of whom are state employees — banning the sale or rental of homes to non-Jews, aimed primarily at Arabs, was the major backlash against it. A number of Israeli colleagues and more than 750 diaspora rabbis, mostly from the U.S., spoke out against the ban as discrimination and, in the words of the diaspora petition, “a painful distortion of our tradition.”
The fact that so many rabbis have pointed out that Jewish law requires treating Jews and others equally is encouraging, but the ruling that prompted their response is an embarrassment to Israel and to all Jews who look to rabbinic leaders for moral as well as religious guidance.
Unfortunately, the proposed halachic ban is symptomatic of a disturbing and growing trend in Israeli society that finds an increasingly intolerant strain among those whose power reaches well beyond the haredi community to all of Israeli society, thanks to their political clout.
A prime example is the latest chapter in the long, confusing and controversial saga over conversion. A new piece of proposed legislation by David Rotem, a Knesset member from Yisrael Beiteinu, the party made up primarily of Jews from the former Soviet Union, seeks to uphold the legitimacy of conversions performed by the rabbis of the Israeli Defense Forces. Although the IDF rabbis are approved by the Chief Rabbinate, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has not fully endorsed the legitimacy of these conversions — 890 this year — primarily of Jews of Russian lineage serving in the army. Rotem, whose proposed legislation on a wide-scale conversion bill is still under review, is seeking to loosen the grip of the Chief Rabbinate on the IDF conversions.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been holding urgent meetings this week, trying to negotiate a compromise between two key parties in his coalition, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Shas, the religious party seeking to maintain the Chief Rabbinate’s authority.
The reality is that an internal political power play over conversion could bring down the government, reflective of the increasing authority wielded by the religious parties in general and Shas in particular.
What is deeply disturbing, if not tragic, is that the Chief Rabbinate has, in effect, been hijacked by religious extremists in recent years, becoming more and more insular and parochial. The result has been to turn Israelis against religious authority, which is more than a shame. Secular, non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox Jews have lost respect for the institution, and its only champions are fervently Orthodox Jews who have cynically succeeded in undermining the office.
What’s needed, short-term, is to remove the conversion issue from the realm of politics. Seth Farber, an Orthodox rabbi whose noteworthy group, Itim, advocates for those seeking marriages, divorces and funerals in Israel, notes that the Chief Rabbinate is “a political post, not a religious one.” His group is suing the Chief Rabbinate in the Supreme Court over the rabbinate’s treatment of converts.
In the meantime, the unhealthy mix of religion and politics continues to embarrass world Jewry and jeopardize the stability of Israeli society.