Religious Reform Won't Survive Coalition Breakup

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Arye Dery speaks at a service marking the one-year anniversary of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's death, September 28, 2014. Credit: Emil Salman

It didn’t amount to much. The dramatic changes that some had foreseen as a result of the 2013 coalition negotiations, which left Israel’s Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) outside of the government, did not materialize. Various ministers had promised that the Haredi-free coalition would force the ultra-Orthodox to forfeit the special perks that they enjoyed and that so infuriated the rest of Israel’s population. Finally, Israelis were told, religious freedom would return to the national agenda and the Haredim would be obligated to share equally the responsibilities (or "burdens") of Israeli citizenship.

But those promises were not really kept. Politicians, being politicians, were already looking ahead to the next elections. Desperate not to offend a constituency that they might need next time around, they tweaked Israel’s religious system here and there rather than reforming it in fundamental ways.

Nonetheless, some changes were made. Israelis who wanted to marry under the auspices of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate were given a bit more flexibility in choosing a rabbi to officiate their ceremony; and cuts were made to yeshiva budgets, making it more likely that some yeshiva students would be obligated to work to support their families.

But when it came to truly significant religious reforms, the politicians mostly made “changes” but delayed their implementation, allowing them to glory in their reformist zeal while keeping their options open for the future. Thus, a bill to draft yeshiva students will only be fully implemented in 2017, and a plan to force ultra-Orthodox schools to teach English, math, and Hebrew was put off until that same year. Meanwhile, critical matters – such as a law on civil marriage and an agreement on egalitarian prayer arrangements at the Western Wall – were never resolved at all.

So what will happen now that the Haredi-free coalition is being dismantled and Israel is heading for elections? Religious reform will basically die.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated that in this election, his goal is to form a government with right-wing and Haredi parties. In bringing that coalition into being, he will probably refuse to repeal the Haredi draft law. Such a step would cause an uproar that even he could not ignore. But he will agree to make “adjustments” to the law that will render it essentially meaningless, and he will also go along with restoring Haredi funding to its previous levels and avoiding any further legislation to which the ultra-Orthodox object. And the truth is that the parties of the center and left will do the same thing. If given the chance to form the government, the fact is that they will need the 15 or so seats that the two Haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, bring to the table just as much as Netanyahu will.

On a certain level, I am sympathetic to Israel’s leaders. Issues of peace, terror, security, the Iranian threat and relations with the United States are Israel’s top priorities at the moment. This general election will be fought on those grounds. And the day after the elections, when Israel needs a government, the Haredim, alas, are likely to constitute the balance of power, as they have so many times before.

Nonetheless, issues of religious freedom and religious reform are not window dressing or incidental to Israel’s future. Politicians on both the right and the left would be wise to remember just how important these questions are in the Jewish world.

As studies by the religious freedom organization Hiddush have demonstrated, Israelis care deeply about these matters, even in these difficult times. With 52 percent of Haredi men "of prime working age" unemployed, economists warn that Israel’s economy faces disaster if masses of ultra-Orthodox men, engaging in the ultimate abuse and misuse of Torah, continue to shirk responsibility for the well-being of their children and families by not working to feed them.

As for Diaspora Jews, Israel’s staunchest defenders in the United States and throughout the world, religious freedom remains an obsession and a battle cry and its absence a source of distress and dismay. While Israel’s politicians argue over a nation-state bill that professes to define Israel’s Jewish character, America’s non-Orthodox Jewish majority is asking: How can you tell us that Israel is our spiritual home, but then claim that our rabbis are not rabbis and our Jewish life is devoid of legitimacy? How can you permit Torah, the spiritual legacy of the entire Jewish people, to become an instrument of coercion in the hands of an imperious Chief Rabbinate? How can you speak of a united Jerusalem and then deny us the right to pray to God at the Western Wall in our own way, according to our own custom?

We know, of course, about coalition politics. We know that in March Israeli politicians will be sitting around, struggling to put together a government. But is everything to be defined by the politics of self-interest? Has the time not come to be less concerned with the political status quo and more concerned with the diversity of Jewish practice that should flower in the Jewish state?

Yes, peace is our absolute first priority. But before the last two years become nothing more than a momentary interlude, the non-Orthodox Jews of Israel and the Diaspora wish to remind you: religious freedom and religious equality are a very close second.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer and lecturer living in Westfield, New Jersey.

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