Getting Back to Basics

Recommit to Israel's Founding Vision

Israel was established on the basis of religious freedoms; where do we go from here?

Israeli Flag.  Photograph by: leah.jones, Creative CommonsPhotograph by: leah.jones, Creative Commons

by Terry Meyerhoff-Rubenstein and Stanley P. Gold

The vision of Israel's Declaration of Independence, a source of great pride, states: "The State of Israel ... will ensure complete equality of social and political rights of all its inhabitants irrespective of religion ... it will guarantee freedom of religion and conscience."

Yet 61 years after its founding as a Jewish and democratic state, Israel lags far behind all other democracies in implementing its own declared principles.

Ironically, it is the majority of its Jewish citizens who have yet to secure true religious freedom. This reality runs counter to the principles of Judaism and to the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Israelis. In a recent poll conducted by the Israeli pollster Rafi Smith for the new organization Hiddush, 83 percent of Israelis maintained that freedom of religion and conscience must be upheld by Israel.

This overwhelming response may be because discrimination and the lack of religious freedom severely affect nearly all aspects of life. Consider a few of the most egregious examples.

¥--The right to establish a family through legal, state-endorsed marriage is denied to hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens, Jews by birth, Jews by choice and new immigrants.

¥--The rabbinic courts make the lives of many Israeli women miserable when they are denied a divorce to gain their liberty.

¥--A growing number of public bus lines force women to sit in the back of the bus.

¥--The effective control of the Orthodox rabbinate over conversions performed in Israel and growing fundamentalism in widening official Orthodox circles results in state rabbinic courts that nullify retroactively conversions of individuals, citing these individuals' partial observance of ritual law.

Non-Orthodox streams in Judaism---- the majority of world Jewry -- are discriminated against in Israel.

The implications for Israel's security and its economy are nothing short of profound. In Israel today, fervently Orthodox schools receive full public funding, yet their yeshivot for high school-age boys teach no general studies whatsoever, diverting public funds to a school system that does not prepare students to participate in the work force, dooming them to lives of poverty and dependency on public funds. Today, underemployment of fervently Orthodox men drains the Israeli economy of $1 billion-$4 billion per year.

We are one! But we also believe that the North American Jewish community, which would not tolerate such a reality in its own midst, also should not tolerate it in Israel.

If the current state of affairs continues, within 12 years, one-quarter of all Israeli Jewish children will not receive a basic education and will demand to be exempted from army service.

It's a shame that this vital issue won't be given the prominence and urgency it deserves at the Jewish Federations of North America's General Assembly in Washington, D.C., next week. Both of us are active in our local federations, believing strongly in the federation slogan: We are one! But we also believe that the North American Jewish community, which would not tolerate such a reality in its own midst, also should not tolerate it in Israel.

We believe firmly that increased awareness of this issue -- and a partnership between Israelis and world Jewry -- is needed to reform what is, after all, a situation created by politicians.

In fact, there is a chance to make our voices heard shortly. The governing coalition is supporting legislation for a civil union in lieu of marriage to those who are not considered "kosher" enough by the religious establishment. However, the bill does not address some 300,000 Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union who are not able to marry in Israel; plus, about 200 couples a year who cannot meet the rigid criteria of the proposed bill will be branded as untouchable "goyim," with inferior status. We must raise our collective voice to say that this is unacceptable. What Israelis want, and what is needed, is the freedom to marry, not a second-rate "civil unions" bill.

Ensuring religious freedom will contribute to strengthening both Judaism and democracy and will enhance the opportunity to pursue religion out of choice, rather than coercion. Moreover, it will provide for a much stronger bond between our communities and Israel, and enhance the attraction and support of Israel to our pluralistic Jewish community.

Stanley P. Gold, chair of Hiddush (, also chairs the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Terry Meyerhoff-Rubenstein, a member of Hiddush's steering committee, is a board member of the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and executive vice president of the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds.

See the story in the Washington Jewish Week

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