If all goes according to plan, this March we’re going to bring a daughter into the world. Specifically, we’re going to bring her home to our apartment on Chen Boulevard, in the center of Tel Aviv, the city we’ve made our home, though we were born in the United States and Canada.
Had you asked us six years ago where we dreamed of raising a family, we’d have answered “Israel” without hesitation. But recently we’ve begun to doubt whether we should raise her in the Jewish state.
It’s not the escalating situation with Iran that gives us pause, or the fact that our daughter will one day serve in the army: We decided to live in Israel with full knowledge of the security threats it faces. The reason we are concerned about raising a daughter here is that the government is standing by as war is waged against girls and women.
Since the founding of Israel in 1948, the Orthodox have had the power to decide who is a Jew and how a Jew can live and die by controlling the mechanisms of marriage, divorce, and burial. What this means practically is that the government body that oversees all major life-cycle events—as well as regulating food production—is a religious institution, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
Orthodox religious law is the law of the land: Only a man can marry a woman, only a man can grant a divorce. And because of Orthodoxy’s systemic exclusion of women from positions of power—its refusal to allow women to be rabbis, or to recognize female Reform and Conservative rabbis—the interests of women have been disregarded.
The Orthodoxy of the rabbinate has caused friction in Israel before, but the well-publicized events of recent weeks have brought tensions to a boil. Though some had heard of the gender-segregated public buses now common in cities like Beit Shemesh, the other incidents of discrimination against women and girls came as shock: a 28-year-old woman asked to ride in the back of a public bus, an 8-year-old child called a “whore” and spat on by grown men, and a gynecological convention that barred women speakers. These incidents, carried out by ultra-Orthodox Israelis and tolerated by the ultra-Orthodox leadership, provided the majority of Israelis with clear evidence that the rabbinate’s power has helped create a rotten attitude toward women in major segments of Israeli society.
If this sort of discriminatory behavior were isolated in a few neighborhoods of the country, it would be a shame, but we would hesitate to tell others how to live their lives. Increasingly, though, it’s not isolated, and the discrimination and marginalization of women are tacitly permitted by the state. If we allow this trend to continue, Israel will cease to exist as a strong and vibrant democracy.
Due to Israel’s coalition-based government system, where coalition partners are given control over ministries in return for voting as a bloc, governments from David Ben-Gurion’s to Benjamin Netanyahu’s have preferred to add an ultra-Orthodox, non-Zionist party to their coalition rather than create a coalition without parties such as United Torah Judaism. Such a non-ultra-Orthodox coalition could, in one vote, break the rabbinate’s power. But the major parties are stuck in a kind of prisoner’s dilemma: Each party fears that if it votes against Orthodox control, while the other does not, the Orthodox would ally with the opposition to crush it. So, the status quo persists.
In this context, our daughter will not be considered Jewish by the state. That’s because Erin’s mother had Conservative Jewish conversion in Canada before Erin was born, and because we decided it was insulting to ask Erin, who lived her whole life as a Jew, to “convert” just because a state-employed rabbi decided she is not Jewish enough.
We could not be married in Israel because of Erin’s official lack of Jewishness, despite the fact that we are observant Jews who keep Shabbat and a kosher home. (Our marriage certificate is from the state of Illinois.) Likewise, our daughter could in the future be legally barred from marrying the person she loves in Israel. If the laws continue as they are, the two of us will not be able to be buried in the same state-run cemetery, and our daughter would be excluded from burial in a Jewish cemetery when her life is spent. She’ll be a citizen, just as we are, and she’ll serve in the army, just as Ariel did. But if the status quo persists, she will go from cradle to grave knowing that in the eyes of the government of the state of Israel she is not a Jew.
For us, nothing is more painful. Our grandparents devoted their lives to supporting the state and its establishment, and we’ve devoted ours to building Israeli organizations that have connected thousands to Israel. But all of that is irrelevant in the eyes of the bearded men who have power over critical aspects of the lives of this country’s 6 million Jews.
This is not what the pioneers who founded this state worked toward, and it isn’t what generations of Diaspora Jews fought for.
It is time that the world Jewish community knew about this systemic bias in Israel—and time for Diaspora Jewry to act. It is amazing to think that while American Jews raise money for the state, lobby their political representatives to support Israel, and send their children on Birthright, the rabbinate denies the Jewishness of many of these Diaspora Jews.
This schism between who is a Jew in the Diaspora and who is considered a Jew by the state of Israel will only grow, considering that more than a quarter of Jewish students entering the first grade in Israel this year are ultra-Orthodox, as Dan Ben-David, director of the Taub Center in Jerusalem, has noted. This means that if we want Israel to be a Jewish state for all the Jewish people, as well as a democratic state that respects the individual rights of its citizens, we have a small window to break the Orthodox monopoly on the Israel’s core institutions.
Next year’s Israeli election is the perfect opportunity for the American Jewish community—and the rest of Diaspora Jewry—to act. Diaspora leaders need to demand from the leadership of the Israeli political parties that they make liberalization of the rabbinate a priority. It’s no secret that Israel’s political leaders and Israeli government programs depend on financial and political support from Diaspora Jews.
The Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Agency, the United Jewish Appeal, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish National Fund, and so on, should give the Israeli government a 90-day window to enact legislation to protect the rights of women and the non-Orthodox. Jerry Silverman, Sheldon Adelson, Howard Kohr, Ron Lauder, and other leaders of powerful Diaspora Jewish groups: Enough with the back-room diplomacy. It is time for Jewish leaders, especially in the United States, to make it clear that no money or lobbying support will flow to the government of Israel, or government-sponsored programs, if the state’s official institutions discriminate against non-Orthodox Jews. No pluralism and no recognition of women’s rights equals no cash and no lobbying support.
Our grandparents, parents, and peers did not work so hard or sacrifice so much to be judged unfit by official representatives of the government of Israel because of the crime of being Modern Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. Our women do not deserve to sit in the back of buses, or to be spat on by those who cover themselves in black from head to toe. We need to use the means at our disposal to pressure the state to protect the future of the Jewish people. Our daughters demand it.
CORRECTION, January 9: This article originally stated that close to 50 percent of Jewish students entering first grade in Israel this year are ultra-Orthodox. In fact, the number is 27 percent. The error has been corrected.