A fierce battle is raging in Israel. It’s not the one we read about daily in our newspapers between Israel and Hizbullah or Israel and Hamas, it’s not about whether or not Iran has “the bomb,” and it’s not about the fight to delegitimize the State of Israel. The battle I’m writing about is the battle for the heart and soul of the country and perhaps the future of the Jewish people.
Over the last few years, fervently Orthodox political forces and the Israeli religious establishment have attempted to exert increasing control over religious issues that affect Jews around the world and daily life in Israel. By raising the stakes, the fervently Orthodox approach has catalyzed many Israelis and Americans to join the battle over what kind of Jewish state will exist in the future.
The current state of affairs is problematic in and of itself. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate does not officially recognize conversions by most rabbis in the Diaspora from all streams. Converts who die serving in the IDF cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. They also are not considered “Jewish” when it comes time to get married. There are buses in Jerusalem in which women are forced to sit in the back. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled this to be illegal, but it continues.
The government supports most haredi, or fervently Orthodox, synagogues and yeshivot but spends almost nothing on Reform, Conservative, and non-denominational synagogues.
In recent years, the haredi leadership demonstrated clearly what kind of country they want to see Israel become: a Jewish theocracy ruled by the laws of the Torah according to their interpretation. More than 100 haredi rabbis, many of them public officials, told their followers that they were not allowed to rent or sell property to non-Jews, i.e., Arabs. In 2010 they attempted to pass the Rotem bill, which would have codified all religious authority over conversions as being under their control. Haredi parties pushed unsuccessfully to pass legislation that would give even higher stipends to adult yeshiva students.
In Jerusalem today, it is rare to find the image of a woman in advertisements for any products on any billboard or poster. Haredim have exerted pressure on advertisers to make sure this does not happen.
This issue became international news in December 2011, when TV news reported that haredi men in Beit Shemesh were verbally harassing and even spitting on a young girl attending a Modern Orthodox yeshiva who they felt was dressed “immodestly.”
The haredim represent about 10 percent of Israel’s population. Approximately 70 percent of the men do not work, but are supported by the state to pursue a life of Torah study. This is also the fastest-growing population in the state. The Ministry of Industry projects that within two decades they will grow to 17.5 percent of the population. What this means is that everyone else will have to support them and protect them from neighbors who want to see Israel destroyed since most haredim do not serve in the army.
Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora have entered the battle for the future of Israel. For over 10 years, the Religious Pluralism Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ has been a leader in supporting institutions that help Israelis express their Judaism in a wide variety of ways. The committee supports programs within the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements and Modern Orthodox Israeli institutions. It funds nondenominational batei midrash (religious study programs) and projects that promote Jewish learning and observance in unique, authentic Israeli settings — helping to create a pluralistic Jewish renaissance in Israel.
In Israel, many organizations are engaged in this battle. They are lobbying for an egalitarian, tolerant, open-minded state that supports true freedom of religion. They include members of the haredi community — including Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a recent visitor to the local community — who are joining in this struggle for pluralism and vigorously denouncing actions like those in Beit Shemesh. The question of what kind of state Israel will be is getting more and more attention. Every time the haredi community attempts to gain more political control, they are running into opposition.
Will Israel become a Jewish theocracy or will it be a true democracy where freedom of religion is the norm? Will it respect the Jewish expressions of multiple streams of Judaism, or continue to favor one group’s interpretation over others’?
The battle over these questions will determine the future strength and health of the State of Israel. Worldwide Jewry has a critical role to play here.