Analysis

Israel's ultra-Orthodox Establishment Is Consolidating Its Power

Three events from the past days show that Israel is no longer a country for those who believe that there is more than one way to observe Judaism

FILE PHOTO: Deputy Health Minister MK Yaakov Litzman at a press conference in Israel, 2016.
Moti Milrod

Call it a coincidence or a conspiracy, or simply a sign of the political times - but three events that over less than 48 hours, must be taken together as sending a disturbingly strong message: the country’s ultra-Orthodox religious establishment is ready to use its considerable power to fend off any threat to its monopoly.  

First, prominent religious-Zionist and ultra-Orthodox rabbis held a massive pow-wow called “One Conversion for One People,” aimed at demolishing a piece of legislation that threatens to break their monopoly on conversions to Judaism.

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The dreaded proposal recommended establishing a new state-run Orthodox authority independent of the Chief Rabbinate to take on the formidable task of converting the hundreds of thousands of Israelis - mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their families - who remain officially “without religion.” This population, most of whom consider themselves Jewish and are fully contributing members of Israeli society have refused to subject themselves to the difficult and often humiliating process of converting to Judaism under the auspices of the Rabbinate.

Then, less than forty-eight hours after the conference, police in Israel roused Conservative Rabbi Dov Haiyun from his bed in Haifa, dragging him to the police station to be questioned for having allegedly committed the crime of performing a wedding ceremony outside the country’s Rabbinate. Haiyun "marrying those who are not eligible to be married" - a couple, one of whom had been forbidden by the Rabbinate from marrying because of carrying the status of “mamzer.”

Officially, Haiyun, along with rabbis across the country committed a crime which carries a sentence of up to two years in prison. Why he was singled out is still unclear. But it marked the first time the authorities have ever taken any steps to enforce the 2013 law that forbids performing weddings outside the Rabbinate.

Israel's nation-state law

The third event - the passage of the nation-state bill, which was done in a way that would legitimize killing liberalized conversion, marriage or anything else with a whiff of Jewish pluralism.

In the negotiations over the nation-state bill, the ultra-Orthodox parties honed in on one clause. In the version of the bill originally under consideration, the clause read: “The state will work to preserve the affinity between [Israel] and the Jewish people everywhere.”

They insisted that it be changed to: “The state will work in the Diaspora to preserve the affinity between [Israel] and the Jewish people.”

With the switch of a few words, the message was sent that the state of Israel was only committed to the unity of the Jewish people outside its borders.

Within the state, the ultra-Orthodox rabbinic monopoly wanted to make it clear that there was only one officially approved form of practicing Judaism in Israel - their kind.

Enshrining this principle in a Basic Law, which is supposed to reflect the foundational values of the state, distressed North American Diaspora Jewry greatly that they sent top leaders to argue against it.

The effort proved unsuccessful - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to put the kind of pressure on the ultra-Orthodox parties the way he had leaned on the Habayit Hayehudi party to drop its insistence on the “gated communities clause.”

It was yet another sign that the leader of what is now officially the "Jewish Nation State” cares little for the concerns of the non-Orthodox and modern Orthodox Jews who live outside it - as well as the embattled minority of Jews in the country who, under increasingly difficult circumstance, continue to believe that there is more than one way to observe their religion.