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Abortion Rights in Israel Are Safe

Amiad Cohen and Rotem Sella
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Pro-choice protesters in the US, in April.
Pro-choice protesters in the US, in April.Credit: Sue Ogrocki /AP
Amiad Cohen and Rotem Sella

The overruling of Roe vs. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court has raised concerns here in Israel too. Voices on the left have hinted, or stated explicitly, that Israel is next in line. Within 72 hours after the ruling, which cancels the right of women seeking an abortion to receive federal protection anchored in the Constitution, Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli put out a well-polished video saying that “the same right wing wishes to do the same thing here.” On Kan Bet Radio, legal affairs correspondent Tamar Almog asked Likud lawmaker Yoav Kisch about his stand on a hypothetical law banning abortions. On the leftist feed on social media, question marks were replaced with exclamation marks – Israeli conservatives want to abolish the right to abortion!

Thankfully, the reality is quite the opposite. There are excellent and encouraging reasons to assume that the campaign for prohibiting or limiting abortions will not come to Israel. One reason for the different approaches of American and Israeli conservatism is that they stem from totally different religious traditions. Opponents of abortion in America, constituting the “pro-life” movement, base themselves on a mainly Christian approach in which a fetus is considered a human being for all intents and purposes from the moment of conception, which is why terminating a pregnancy at any stage, according to this view, is tantamount to murder.

Jewish religious law does not share this approach. The accepted law is that it’s permissible to have an abortion in many instances before the third month of a pregnancy – and in cases of unknown fathers or unwed mothers, or when there is a medical risk to the mother, even later than that. Undoubtedly, there is still a big gap between the position of Jewish halacha and an unreserved support for abortion. However, this gray area creates a space in which Jewish tradition tolerates the freedom of choice of an individual or a family.

This tolerance is expressed in the manner in which this Israeli “bluff” regarding a prohibition on abortions is received. Legally, many of the abortions performed here are prohibited, but they are allowed after approval by a committee in cases of rape, incest, medical problems, pregnancy out of wedlock, or for some age groups (under 18 or over 40). In the best tradition of such bluffs, there is no problem with having an abortion even in cases that are prohibited by law.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, these committees approve 99 percent of the requests they receive. This is convenient for (nearly) everyone. In theory, and according to what is declared, abortion in Israel is not a trivial matter to be taken lightly. In practice, abortion is a matter that every woman or family decides on according to their moral stance and their specific needs and condition. There is a reason this compromise has worked for a long time, with no polarizing, noisy polemics: The arrangement is acceptable to the public.

To the relative toleration of abortion is added the unique social situation in Israel, in which the family, a social institution that is on the wane in the Western world, is thriving. Members of the traditional-liberal camp see the family, not the state, as the place for discussing painful, complex and personal issues such as abortion. Transferring the decision on this issue from an adult surrounded by loving people to an official, rabbi, policeman or social worker is considered an extreme step that should be reserved only for extreme cases.

The truth is that in Israel, righteous fundamentalism comes from the left, parts of which are trying to impose radical worldviews on issues such as gender, feminism and education on the entire society, without considering the rights of individuals and communities to live their lives as they see fit. In contrast, Israeli conservatives are more optimistic, preferring less centralization. They are convinced that tradition, heritage and Jewish family orientation give rise to people with wisdom and a conscience, equipping them to manage their lives without tight supervision and domination from above.

Optimism with regard to the ability of a society and tradition to renew themselves, and the freedom-minded sentiment beating in the hearts of the new Israeli right, make it a pro-choice camp, a camp favoring a reduction in government involvement in regulating and directing education, culture and individual values, in order to create conditions that will enable families and communities to determine their character by themselves.

Not a conservative Republic of Gilead, but a free state, which after 2,000 years in exile will allow Jews to interpret and live their lives in the light of their traditions and heritage, as they see fit, without the threatening shadows of a foreign ruler, all-knowing bureaucrats or intellectual fashions (conservative or progressive) that germinated far from here.

Cohen is the director-general of the Tikvah Yisrael Fund; Rotem is the publisher of Sella Meir Publishing.

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