Religious Revolution in Israel
Can an unlikely alliance of renegade rabbis and right-wing politicians strip the ultra-Orthodox of their power?
This arrangement has long posed a problem to any group seeking to revamp the rabbinate. To enact political reform, one needs political allies. But thanks to this ongoing deal, Israeli politicians have had little incentive to rock the rabbinate boat. Indeed, they gained more by trading away control of the institution in exchange for ultra-Orthodox support on more popularly pressing concerns, like security and economic policy. While Israeli voters might chafe under the strictures of the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment, they weren’t about to prioritize that nuisance over, say, the peace process.
Yet over the last few years, Tzohar has managed to overcome this perennial obstacle by applying increasing political pressure to the rabbinate—to the point that behind the scenes, some ultra-Orthodox politicians were willing to barter away one of the chief rabbi posts to Tzohar in exchange for a truce. Better the rabbinate be shared on their terms, went their logic, than wrested away from without.
Tzohar’s newfound muscle is a consequence of the organization’s political savvy and, more importantly, the rise of a new group of supportive lawmakers who are politically inclined to take on the chief rabbinate. Foremost among them: the members of the hard-right Yisrael Beiteinu.
On Oct. 22, 2010, Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem threatened to dissolve the Chief Rabbinate Council, one of the institution’s core governing bodies, if it did not relax its stringent standards for conversion to Judaism. Two weeks later, Rotem spearheaded the passage in the Knesset of a civil unions bill, which for the first time created the possibility for a small subset of Israelis to get married outside the rabbinate’s control. At the time, Rotem vowed to fight to extend this law to all Israelis—Jews and non-Jews—who wished to marry without the rabbinate’s involvement.
That a prominent lawmaker for Yisrael Beiteinu, with the backing of his party, would spend much of his time sparring with the Israeli chief rabbinate might come as a surprise to some observers. Yisrael Beiteinu, after all, has tended to receive rather one-note treatment in the international media: as a hard-right nationalist party led by the widely loathed Avigdor Lieberman, and opposed to any sort of settlement with the Palestinian leadership.
The merits of this characterization aside, it is in fact a myopic prism through which to understand Israeli politics. In Israel, as in the United States and other democracies, political parties are not elected merely on their foreign policy, but on their domestic agendas. (For example, recent polling shows that 53 percent of Israelis rank socioeconomic issues as their top priority in the country’s upcoming elections.) And Yisrael Beiteinu has a very particular domestic agenda that is distinct from its position on the peace process—one that goes a long way toward explaining why its politicians have been attacking the chief rabbinate.
The party’s core constituency is Israel’s Russian immigrant population—nearly 1 million strong—and its founder, Lieberman, hails from this community, which is often noted for its tough stance on security issues. But no less notable is the fact that some 300,000 members of this demographic are completely disenfranchised by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, which refuses to recognize them as Jewish.
On the one hand, the rabbinate demands proof of Jewish ancestry, in the form of witnesses and paperwork, which can be very difficult to procure from the former Soviet Union. On the other, for those who cannot produce such evidence, the rabbinate often refuses to convert them, because the immigrants are avowedly secular and unwilling to accept the obligations of religious law. (And when rabbis with more permissive stances, like Tzohar’s Chaim Druckman, converted thousands of these Russian immigrants nonetheless, the ultra-Orthodox Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem attempted to revoke the conversions.)
The result: hundreds of thousands of Israeli Russians left in perpetual legal limbo, unable to marry other Jews in Israel or be buried in a Jewish cemetery, despite the fact that many put their lives on the line for the Jewish state in the IDF. Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu promised their voters to end this state of affairs.
One such effort was the infamous 2010 Rotem conversion bill, which sought to empower more moderate local rabbis to convert those whom the chief rabbinate would not. But because the bill contained ambiguous language that could be interpreted as formally disqualifying Conservative, Reform, and even modern Orthodox conversions from outside Israel—though no experts were certain this was the case—it was vilified in the diaspora and ultimately buried by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Lost in the furor, certainly for American Jews (including Tablet’s editor-in-chief) was the fact that Rotem’s bill was not intended to strengthen the chief rabbinate, but to weaken its hardliners in order to ameliorate the plight of a largely secular population within Israel. (Rotem insists to this day that the bill was never properly apprehended by its critics. “If you ask me, they never understood what is written in this law,” he told me.)
MK Faina Kirschenbaum is herself a Russian immigrant, and the secretary general of Yisrael Beiteinu, known for helping Avigdor Lieberman build the party into an electoral juggernaut. She has taken the lead in forcing the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate to either convert disenfranchised immigrants, or cede their authority to those who would. Tzohar has been her party’s natural ally. “Tzohar is a wonderful organization which presents the beautiful face of Judaism to those who are seeking an engagement with Judaism during life-cycle events, primarily marriage,” she told me. It is “a grassroots answer to increasing skepticism of the Haredi establishment’s extremist approach.”
So, when the religious affairs minister attempted to circumscribe Tzohar’s marriage program, it was Kirschenbaum who put forward Knesset legislation to protect it. “I am proud that the Israeli government through my bill will support such an organization,” she said. Notably, like many of Tzohar’s supporters, such as opposition leader Tzipi Livni, Kirschenbaum identifies with the organization even as she herself is not particularly religious. “I am not a particularly observant Jew, but am very proud of our traditions and heritage,” she told me.
And with the help of these secular politicians, alongside others from mainstream parties like Likud coalition chairman MK Ze’ev Elkin, Tzohar has begun to push the chief rabbinate into a corner. “Safe to say, I think they’ve taken the gloves off,” said Daniel Goldman, chairman of Gesher Israel, a nonprofit organization that works closely with the country’s religious and secular groups to promote dialogue and mutual understanding. “Tzohar has stepped up its game from being a sort of nice face of how the rabbinate might look like, to getting into gear politically and talking to senior level politicians on all sides, saying ‘we have some leverage here, what are you going to give us in return for that?’ ”
The next Knesset looks to be even more unfavorable to the entrenched ultra-Orthodox establishment. On Dec. 5, at a forum closed to the press, Likud coalition chairman Elkin said that the next government would likely not contain ultra-Orthodox parties, as their values were “incompatible” with those of Likud-Beiteinu, the joint party formed by Netanyahu and Lieberman for the forthcoming Israeli elections. Days later, Faina Kirschenbaum echoed the sentiment. Meanwhile, polls now put the national religious party Habayit Hayehudi, which supports Tzohar, as the third-largest in the next Knesset, where it is likely to join Netanyahu’s government. Another potential member of that coalition that some close observers predict to replace the ultra-Orthodox parties is Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party—which happens to have Tzohar co-founder Rabbi Shay Piron as the No. 2 candidate on its list.
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