Regev Responds

The opportunity for change is now!

Will Jewish leadership continue looking the other way?

The world media, from Washington DC to Burkina Faso, French Guinea and the Arab world covered the phenomenon of the most prominent athlete in Israel today, who won a gold medal for the State of Israel and sweeping praise from the heads of state; but is not allowed by his country to marry his girlfriend because it placed the control of marriage in Israel in the hands of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

Washington Post, August 4, 2021Washington Post, August 4, 2021;
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This week, a Washington Post article quoted me on the matter of Israel’s lack of marriage freedom, following Artem Dologpyat's gold medal victory at the Olympics:

“Who is a Jew and who can marry are two existential questions that Israel has failed to grapple with in its 72-year history,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, head of the group Hiddush-Freedom of Religion for Israel.

Israel has denied certain married couples the right to live together. Some hide. Others break up.

Advocates have already whittled away at the rabbis’ lock on some issues, with recent Israeli Supreme Court rulings opening up avenues of conversion to Judaism and a new budget that breaks opens kosher certification to greater competition. Regev said he thinks Dolgopyat could now personalize and popularize the issue of marriage.

“The battle for who controls marriage is age-old,” he said. “But when you have an individual who is heralded by not just the public but the cabinet and the prime minister, that has the capacity to move forward that which already enjoys the support of the silent majority.”

The concise Washington Post article, naturally, could not include everything important to know about this subject. Indeed, the issues of freedom of marriage and “Who is a Jew” are at the core of the struggle for the identity of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. They largely symbolize the opposite paradigms held by sections of the Jewish public in Israel. However, the two sides are not equal in size.

The vast majority of the Jewish public, about two-thirds, wants a Jewish and democratic state whose Judaism is characterized by diversity, pluralism, and tolerance. Its democratic values should include, just as promised by its Declaration of Independence, freedom of religion and equality without distinction of religion and gender. Only a minority, about one third, wants a Jewish state in which Orthodox religious law governs Judaism, marriage, and conversion. This minority mainly includes the ultra-Orthodox sector, which has not lost its aspiration for a Torah state. Even the ultra-Orthodox politicians’ utilitarian and cynical participation in many consecutive Israeli governments does not cover this simple truth, which is openly stated in the ultra-Orthodox media. Of course, their political representatives in the Knesset act wisely and do not quote such articles in their public speeches.

For example, this week you could read a major article in the Yated Ne'eman newspaper of the Haredi-Ashkenazi party Led by Rabbi Moshe Gafni (former chairman of the powerful Knesset Finance Committee) the following words: [In relation to Zionism and Herzl] "... Even in the days when the State of Israel was only in the mind of the Viennese delusionary, Rabbi Yeruchom Levovitz had already warned against it [the spiritual leader of the prestigious Mir Yeshiva]. [Regarding the HaTikva anthem written by Naftali Hertz Imber]: "The Poem of Imber the Drunk." And so much more.

PM Bennett stops Cabinet meeting to congratulate Olympic champion Dolgopyat, source: Amos Gershom, GPOPM Bennett stops Cabinet meeting to congratulate Olympic champion Dolgopyat, source: Amos Gershom, GPO

Unfortunately, they are also joined by part of the Zionist Orthodox community, even by partners who self-identify as secular, such as Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, and, together, they demand that Israeli governments perpetuate religious control over the marriage of the public in Israel. They also insist that Israel must refuse to recognize the conversions of the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations equally and fully.

The irony, of course, as we have seen in recent times and we have described in detail in Hiddush’s newsletters, is that while the Zionist Orthodoxy represented by the Yamina party (led by Bennett and Shaked) and by the Zionist ultra-Orthodox "Religious Zionism" party (led by Bezalel Smotrich), refuses to recognize Jewish pluralism and the non-Orthodox denominations, it makes every effort to strengthen the status and powers of the Zionist Orthodox rabbis identified with them. This, while the ultra-Orthodox parties and leaders describe the current government as a "Reform government." The political and religious leaders of the Haredi community are fighting fiercely and brazenly, together with the Chief Rabbinate (made up of obedient personalities) against expanding the authority over the fields of conversion, kashrut, and marriage, to include the Orthodox-Zionist Rabbinate.

There is nothing new in the fact that many immigrants from the former USSR, like Atrem Dolgopyat, cannot marry in the State of Israel and are inevitably doomed to the status of second-class citizens. However, historic events such as his winning the gold medal at the Olympics in the name of the State of Israel, and Dologopyat’s mother's painful words in an interview following his victory increasingly magnify the anomaly and the gap between the two. They sharpen the distortion in the current state of affairs, not only in the eyes of the Israeli public, but also, shamefully, for the countries of the world who have heard generations of Israel’s leaders give proud speeches about Israel’s status as the only democracy in a non-democratic region of the world, a state that supports and protects freedom of religion.

It’s not only them, but also most of the children growing up today in the Jewish community in the United States! Whether they are converts, children of converts, or offspring of intermarried couples - none of them will be able to marry in the State of Israel, which claims to be their home, at least spiritually.

It should be emphasized that this is not only about immigrants from the former USSR, of which ~400,000 cannot marry at all in Israel, despite being citizens, for their mothers are not Jewish according to Jewish religious law, just like the mother of Dolgopyat. The Chief Rabbinate is not willing to officiate at their weddings so there is no legal path for them to get married in Israel, and there are hundreds of thousands of other Israeli citizens who cannot marry at all due to other restrictions imposed by the Rabbinate [Cohens and divorcees, mamzerim, and more] or cannot marry according to their religious beliefs and consciences. Furthermore, it’s not only them, but also most of the children growing up today in the Jewish community in the United States! Whether they are converts, children of converts, or offspring of intermarried couples - none of them will be able to marry in the State of Israel, which claims to be their home, at least spiritually.

The gap in public attitudes on these issues is not between the Jewish public in Israel and the Jewish public in the United States. Rather, it is between the majority of Jews [both in Israel and the United States] and Israeli politicians, who are willing to sell off the fundamental values of freedom of religion and conscience, pluralism, and Jewish unity to purchase the votes of the religious parties. The important test, with all due respect, is not the issue of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, but rather the more core issues, such as the right to family and “Who is a Jew”. It is important to emphasize that on both issues, the majority of the Jewish public in Israel opposes the continued surrender of freedom of choice and equality to the Chief Rabbinate. Hiddush has long been involved in measuring public attitudes on these issues, and the findings are consistent and unequivocal:

  1. For years, approximately 65% -70% of Israel’s adult Jewish public has expressed support for equal State recognition of civil and non-Orthodox religious marriage in addition to Orthodox marriages.
  2. Only one third of the public sees the need for Jewish conversions approved by the Chief Rabbinate as a condition for the recognition of the Jewish statuses of immigrants with non-Jewish mothers if they identify as Jews, live in Israel, and have integrated into the Jewish population. The majority of the public [66%] does not see the need for this. [36% are satisfied that those who identify as Jewish and have Jewish fathers should be considered Jewish and do not see the need for religious conversion at all, and an additional 30% are willing to settle for a broader range of conversions, including Reform or Conservative conversions]

The question is whether this reminder and knowing the truth about the extent to which the public’s attitude is so different from that of Israel’s politicians, will awaken the Jewish leadership in America and the rest of the world to express a clear, strong, and vocal position about the urgent need to introduce marriage freedom in Israel.

With all the importance of a dialogue called for by many organizations and foundations that operate in the field of Israel-Diaspora relations, it is not the essence, but rather it is the articulation of an unequivocal and public stand to be repeated at every meeting with their colleagues in Israel, and especially with Israeli politicians [whether those who support it and need reinforcement, or those who oppose it, like Ayelet Shaked and Bennett]. This should be accompanied by increasing support for organizations and activists like Hiddush and others. It must be understood that this change is necessary both for the future of the State of Israel and for the strengthening of its bridge with Diaspora Jewry. There is a window of opportunity for change now, for the ultra-Orthodox parties are outside the coalition. Do not let it go by!

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