The road to hell is paved with good intentions...

Once again – Religion-State conflict irreconcilable

This week, Israel was confronted once again with compelling evidence that the longtime festering conflict between religion and state in Israel is irreconcilable. Resolving it by removing state authority from Israel’s religious establishment is the only answer.

Given what we have written recently, this solution’s political viability remains slim at this stage. However, this in no way mitigates the severe nature of the conflict that threatens Israeli democracy and its ties with the rest of the Jewish people.

It would take a political earthquake to bring about this essential solution, which is widely supported by the Israeli public but rejected offhand by most politicians. An earthquake of this sort was close in the last elections. Given the growing realization among Israelis that the excessive political clout of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community has been undermining public health during the COVID-19 pandemic, this may finally bring about the necessary reshuffling of the political deck. This new collision is unfolding this week, as Justice Uri Shoham the Ombudsman of the Israeli Judiciary handed down a decision in a complaint against Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, which was submitted a few months ago by the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center.

The Ombudsman’s decision was to request that the Committee for the Appointments of Rabbinic Judges be convened to consider removing Rabbi Yosef from the office of rabbinic judge. The decision was met with vehement rejection, not only by Rabbi Yosef himself, but also by a broad cadre of Israel’s senior ultra-Orthodox political leadership.

This included the Minister of Religious Services Rabbi Yaakov Avitan who responded in a detailed, written reply communication that he is going to disregard the judge’s decision and will not convene the committee nor consider removing Rabbi Yosef from office. Moreover, he wrote, Rabbi Yosef was merely stating the Halacha and that cannot be restricted. He accused Shoham, saying that, “The main motive behind the ruling on the matter of the honor of the Chief Rabbi is an agenda whose ultimate goal is the introduction of the Reform movement and other denominations through the front door, while trampling on the status quo in the State of Israel on all matters of religion and state.”

In a similar, though even sharper manner, a Shas MK, Yinon Azulai, attacked Shoham at the Knesset saying that “His behavior toward Reform Jews is the conduct of a lobbyist who works for them.”

Moreover, following the ombudsman’s decision, there is already an ultra-Orthodox initiative at the Knesset to amend the law to ensure immunity for rabbinic pronouncements, regardless of breaches of ethical or legal limitations, which would otherwise apply if such pronouncements were uttered by anybody other than rabbinic functionaries.

The Ombudsman, in his detailed decision, referred to Rabbi Yosef’s pattern of disregarding the limitations stemming from his office as Chief Rabbi and rabbinic judge, going back to 2015 when the then Chairman of the Central Elections Committee Justice Saleem Joubran ordered that Rabbi Yosef could not abuse his office to carry out propaganda in support of the Shas party and against Shas’ challengers.

Similarly, in 2017, the then Ombudsman ruled against Rabbi Yosef regarding political pronouncements and inappropriate intervention in the local selection process of a l city rabbi. In both instances, Rabbi Yosef’s claim was that as Chief Rabbi, his speech is unlimited and the ethical limitations apply to judges do not apply to him, since he is also a Chief Rabbi, nor do the ethical restrictions.

Ombudsman Shoham himself ruled against Rabbi Yosef a few months earlier, following a formal complaint submitted by Yisrael Beiteinu after Rabbi Yosef voiced extremely offensive and hurtful characterizations of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The current complaint submitted by IRAC involves another incident, in which Rabbi Yosef lashed out against Reform Judaism and against the Supreme Court, in conjunction with a Supreme Court ruling ordering the Chief Rabbinate to administer halakhic exams to women (in addition to men) who request the opportunity to take them and have their knowledge formally recognized.

A key state authority vested in the hands of somebody who rejects the legitimacy of both the civil law and civil judiciary. He and his colleagues on Israel’s Rabbinic Courts hold monopolistic authority over all Jews in Israel in matters of personal status, without alternative. Inconceivable!

Ombudsman Shoham underscored the unacceptability of his statements regarding the Reform movement, given his official state role, but he put the emphasis on recommending that the committee be convened to determine whether he is eligible to continue functioning as a judge in the Rabbinic Court of Appeal, underscoring Rabbi Yosef’s statements against the Supreme Court.

With regard to the Supreme Court, the current complaint refers to both derogatory statements regarding the Court, as well as his unequivocal declaration that he would not abide by its ruling and that if there would be an attempt to enforce it, the Chief Rabbinate would refrain from administrating halakhic exams altogether. Shoham quoted a previous, harsh assault on the Supreme Court by Rabbi Yosef, such as a speech he delivered in 2018 before a conference of Israel’s rabbinic judges, in which he said that the civil courts of Israel are “worse than gentile courts” and “turning to them is like ‘kicking the words of the Living God.’” Moreover, Yosef’s reply to the current complaint was not only to claim that he is not subject to the ethical norms and limitations that apply to judges, but also that he fully stands behind his statements, that this is his halakhic view, and that he still maintains it.

Clearly we are witnessing a head on collision between Israeli civil law, ethical norms, and judicial conduct on the one hand and an outright rejection of all these core principles, as well as of the essence of Israel’s commitment to religious freedom and equality on the other hand. The ultra-Orthodox political leadership, which controls key state ministries and heads powerful Knesset committees, is openly and blatantly refusing to accept the authority of the civil law and of the highest court in the land. As far as they are concerned, none of that is binding, insofar as it conflicts with their interpretations of the Jewish tradition and of Jewish law.

The root of evil, in terms of this irreconcilable conflict, is Israel’s politicians’ perpetual surrender to the demands of the Orthodox establishment to create a ‘State within a State’. This is legally and symbolically reflected in the different languages of the oaths of office that judges take, as compared to the one required of rabbinic judges. Whereas civil judges make a declaration of allegiance stating:”I pledge myself to be in allegiance to the State of Israel and to its laws…” rabbinic judges are exempted from declaring allegiance to the laws of the State of Israel!

Rabbi Yosef’s statements reflect the consequences of that distinction: A key state authority vested in the hands of somebody who rejects the legitimacy of both the civil law and civil judiciary. He and his colleagues on Israel’s Rabbinic Courts hold monopolistic authority over all Jews in Israel in matters of personal status, without alternative. Inconceivable!

Most politicians prefer to sacrifice the public interest and the defense of core democratic principles at the altar of political opportunism. The public strongly resents this repeating, shameful pattern, as is evident in Hiddush’s annual Israel Religion & State Indices and other similar surveys. Nevertheless, to date, political interests have superseded.

In recent months, public anger has been building up, as it realizes that this framework of a “state within a state” costs human lives and imposes severe economic and social hardship upon the public. We have no doubt that this growing realization of the irreconcilable conflict, coupled with mounting evidence as to the dire harm it causes the Israeli economy, and the upcoming renewed conflict over the insistence of the ultra-Orthodox leadership to exempt all yeshiva students from military or civil service will impact the next round of elections, may not be far off.

Take Action!