How Does Israel Compare to Religiously Extreme Countries?

(Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

What Happened?

JTA reported (and the Jerusalem PostTimes of Israel, and Haaretz followed suit) that a new Pew report published last week found that Israel has “almost as many religious restrictions as Iran.”

Israel was also ranked #5 in terms of social hostilities related to religious norms, and came in at #6 when it comes to interreligious tension and violence, which — much of the media noted — was “a worse score than Syria.”

Specifically, the report cited the fact that “In Israel, drivers who operated cars near ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods on the Sabbath reported incidents of harassment, including name-calling and spitting, by ultra-Orthodox residents.” 

Why Does This Matter?

1. Policy or society? 
From a formal perspective, the ”status quo” agreement allows for the Orthodox Rabbinate to adjudicate issues like Shabbat, kashrut and marital status. In this way, the Pew report’s conclusions mirror reality. On the other hand, if one were to spend time in Tel Aviv, Haifa or many other locations throughout Israel, the description “religiously restrictive” would be a glaring misnomer.

2. Israel is a Jewish state…and Israel is a democratic state
At the end of the day, Israel is a Jewish state. It’s different than the U.S., which was founded on clear separation of church and state. Israel’s Declaration of Independence states: “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State. Accordingly we… are here assembled on the day of the termination of the British Mandate over Eretz-Israel and, by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” From its very inception, Israel has been a Jewish state, and has been grappling with the challenges that that brings, both internally and externally. Israel also has several “basic laws.” One of these, passed in 1992, is for the express purpose of protecting “human dignity and liberty, in order to establish in a Basic Law the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” and states that “there shall be no violation of the life, body or dignity of any person as such.” It goes on to address other principles of human dignity and liberty in Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state. 

3. The role of the Rabbinate
Israel has had chief rabbis since long before it became a state. Under Ottoman rule and its “millet” system, chief rabbis had long been in place. The Sephardic chief rabbi position has been in place since the 17th century, and the Ashkenazi since the 19th century (and given legal status under the British in 1920). This has been common practice in Jewish communities around the world for many years (though for various reasons a chief rabbi never took off in the U.S.). Back in 1947, matters of religion were hotly contested: members of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel movement wanted to preserve religious observance in a largely secular Zionist society, and Ben-Gurion acceded to their requests in order to present a united front ahead of the UN’s partition plan vote. This became known as the “status quo” agreement, which hasn’t changed much since. Today, the Israeli chief rabbinate (Rabbanut) is in charge of ritual matters such as kosher certification, marriage, divorce, conversion and more. See the next section for different perspectives on the Rabbanut’s role in Israel.

4. Consequences of violating “religious restrictions” 
While Israel may have religious bureaucracy that its citizens must navigate, and many find them to be restrictive, Israel Education and Advocacy organizations like StandWithUs remind us that “religious restrictions” in Israel are quite different than in Iran and other nearby countries. For example, while acts of homosexuality traditionally go against both Jewish and Islamic law, Israel is a safe haven for the LGBTQ community, whereas in Iran gay men are publicly put to death. Israeli lives are never at risk for disagreeing with or not following the Rabbanut’s policies.

Diversity of Perspectives Within Israel

In an op-ed piece, Arutz Sheva editor Rochel Sylvetsky addresses some criticisms against the Rabbanut, and reminds readers of its ultimate purpose: “The Chief Rabbinate is in charge of preserving the symbols that make Israel a Jewish state, making halakhic decisions on national issues… and, above all, ensuring the continuity of the Jews as one people in that State.” 

Dr. Shuki Friedman of the Israel Democracy Institute, on the other hand, has predictedthe end of the Chief Rabbinate. He contends that “there is no community in the State of Israel that accepts the discipline and the rulings of its rabbis.” He further states, “the rabbinate has also failed in providing religious services,” citing marriage, kashrut, and conversion as examples. He notes the rising privatization of religious services in Israel.

Recently in Israel, many organizations have sprung up designed to help people deal with the Rabbanut or circumvent it completely, answering a need in Israeli society. The organization ITIM “helps people navigate the religious authorities’ bureaucracy in Israel.” Tzohar is a group that seeks to bridge the secular and religious communities in Israel; it helps with lifecycle events and has “become the Jewish place of choice for a generation who spurn coercion and crave respect, relevance, and variety when it comes to their Jewish experience.” Hashgacha Pratit is a private kosher certification that boasts of “breaking the Chief Rabbinate’s Kashrut Monopoly.” There are several services that offer wedding packages in Cyprus and other international destinations, where many Israelis choose to marry to avoid doing so through the Rabbanut. One in five Israeli couples married abroad in 2010!