Ultra-Orthodox and Reform Jews Share Distaste for Nation-state Bill

Reform and Conservative Jews fear that the bill favors an Orthodox take on Jewish law, while the ultra-Orthodox say the spirit is more national and secular than religious.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Secular women sit on a bus with ultra-orthodox men in Jerusalem.
Secular women sit on a bus with ultra-orthodox men in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

In 2010, the Knesset discussed a bill to reform the conversion process. The coalition parties all supported it, so it seemed to be on a fast track. Then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suddenly shelved it.

This U-turn occurred because of one tiny clause that said conversions would have to be performed “according to halakha,” or Jewish law. This infuriated Reform and Conservative Jews in North America, and when Netanyahu grasped the magnitude of the outrage, he scrapped the bill.

Will this story repeat itself with the Jewish nation-state bill? Will the legislation be shelved or replaced by a softer version, as the conversion reform ultimately was?

Netanyahu has already prepared a compromise version of the bill. But it, too, runs into minefields that have generated a rare moment of agreement between the ultra-Orthodox parties and the American Reform and Conservative movements.

The non-Orthodox fear that the bill will bolster the status of Orthodox halakha. The ultra-Orthodox fear that it will let the High Court of Justice determine the state’s Jewish character, and complain that the bill’s “Jewish” content is mainly national and secular, not religious.

Given some coalition parties’ opposition and the U.S. State Department’s reservations about the bill’s implications for Israel’s non-Jewish minorities, some U.S. Jews are already voicing criticism.

Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, termed the bill “unnecessary” on Tuesday, and stronger criticism is expected from other Jewish groups in the coming days. These groups are concerned not only about Israel’s democratic character but also about the clauses designed to strengthen its Jewish character.

In a letter sent Tuesday to Netanyahu, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Israel’s Reform leader, detailed his movement’s objections to Netanyahu’s proposal. He complained that the bill “grants unprecedented status to Jewish halakha, in its Orthodox interpretation.”

This letter is likely to set the tone not only for the non-Orthodox movements in the United States, but also for the Northern American Jewish federations and other American Jewish organizations. Kariv said he expects all these groups to issue statements against the bill in the coming days.

Kariv found several elements of Netanyahu’s proposal objectionable, including the following: “All educational institutes that serve the Jewish public in Israel will teach the history of the Jewish people, its heritage and tradition”; “Jewish law will serve as a source of inspiration for the Knesset”; and “The Jewish calendar is the state’s official calendar.”

This bill, Kariv wrote, “grants unprecedented status to Jewish halakha, in its Orthodox interpretation, as a general source of inspiration for the legislative branch’s activities.” In a telephone conversation, he added: “This isn’t a halakhic state, but it’s a state that’s giving halakha a constitutional foot in the door. This has no parallel elsewhere in the world.”

Ultra-Orthodox MK Moshe Gafni said his United Torah Judaism party also opposed the bill because it would give the High Court the power to decide “what constitute the Jewish values of the Jewish people’s state.”

And Rabbi Ilay Ofran of the religious kibbutz Kvutzat Yavneh criticized the bill from a religious Zionist perspective.

“My Judaism is first and foremost a religion, and the key elements of my Jewish identity are Torah, halakha, [religious] commandments and faith in God,” Ofran wrote on his Facebook page. “None of these elements are even mentioned in the nation-state bill.”

He said the Judaism referred to in the bill was “culture,” “history” or “affiliation.” Instead of the Torah’s commandments, the bill talks about “the morality of the prophets” and replaces acceptance of the yoke of heaven with “the principles of freedom and justice found in Jewish tradition,” he said.

“The bill puts great emphasis on the state’s symbols – the anthem and the flag. But I’m not a man of symbols. (Did you know that every time the word ‘symbol’ appears in the Bible, it refers to idol worship?) The nation-state bill enshrines the image of a ‘Judaism’ that in many respects isn’t my Judaism. It’s written in a half-secular, half-Reform language and doesn’t give expression to the core of my Jewish identity,” Ofran wrote.

“In some senses, the only clause in the bill that allows a religious man like myself to see himself as part of the Jewish state is the clause promising that ‘the state will enable every resident, irrespective of his religion or nationality, to work to maintain his identity’ – in other words, the clause stating that the Jewish state will also be democratic.”

Kariv predicted that Monday’s statement by the State Department would help mobilize American Jews against the bill, as would a New York Times editorial that termed the bill “heartbreaking” and said it would “erode Israel’s standing among democratic nations.”

“Perhaps the ones who will once again rescue Israeli society are U.S. Jews, who will signal to the prime minister that the bill is unacceptable,” Kariv said. “We’re translating the document I sent to the prime minister – the position paper we drew up against the bill – into English and will send it to all the relevant parties in North America.”

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