Will Israel Be Jewish-democratic or Jewish-fanatic?

Can Israel's Jewishness become more diverse, coexisting with democracy, or will it become an even more constricting Judaism sanctifying extremist positions and clashing with democratic values?

Marina was born in Ukraine. She immigrated to Israel at age 2 with her parents and lived in Hadera. In Ukraine, her parents were considered full-fledged Jews – that was obvious, given the family’s surname: Wasserman. In Israel, though, Marina realized by high school that she was different from the others. In contrast to Ukraine, where her name marked her as a Jew, in the Jewish state her Jewishness was called into question.

In high school she met Roy, who is of Moroccan descent. The two were drafted into the army together – he to an infantry combat unit, she as a soldier-teacher. In the course of her army service, she considered converting to Judaism according to halakha (Jewish religious law), even though she already considered herself a Jew in every respect. She was told that conversion would be of benefit to her future children, while Roy noted that he thought it was important for his parents, too. Marina embarked on the conversion process, but despaired and dropped out midway through: she liked the content but couldn’t connect to the practical side.

After her military service, she followed the usual track of backpacking, higher education and a job. And then, of course, the marriage issue arose. She and Roy were well aware of the problems and the fact that, because of the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly, they would not be able to get married in Israel. But she only truly felt the slap in the face to her Israeliness when they had to tell his parents they were barred from marrying in Israel; that she is an Israeli in every respect but with one small proviso attached. In the end, they were married in Cyprus and registered as man and wife in the Israeli Interior Ministry. No big deal, just a twisted reality.

Marina and Roy’s story is but one example of many. By the same token, I could have written about Noa from Jerusalem, who has been denied a divorce and her freedom for 15 years, even though her former partner has long since gone his own way. Or about the agonizing case of Nadav and Ophir, two men who wanted to adopt a child and discovered that this option does not exist for them.

Constant political struggle

Battles of this kind involving state and religion have been part of the Israeli reality since the state’s establishment. The monopoly granted by the state to Orthodox Jewry in regard to marriage and divorce, the “Who is a Jew?” question and other issues has generated constant political struggle by certain groups who are demanding basic civil rights that fly in the face of the worldview and concrete practices of the Orthodox monopoly. These groups include the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community, which wants to be able to marry and get divorced in Israel; immigrants from the former Soviet Union, some of whom are not recognized as Jews according to halakha; and adherents of Conservative and Reform Judaism, who seek equality of religious services, as one would expect in the Jewish state. All of them are in the same boat.

The present-day state-and-religion battles involve putting out fires – fires ignited by the state’s expansion of the Rabbinate’s powers and the Orthodox monopoly – or righting wrongs. Alternatively, they try to further the rights of certain streams or groups that are discriminated against on the basis of religion, race, gender, origin and sexual orientation. These are rightful struggles, waged against unacceptable discrimination.

However, the struggle involving issues of religion and state is deeper and more significant than the question of civil rights of one kind or another. It is one of the fundamental struggles over Israel’s image, and necessitates addressing Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state.

The big question facing us today is whether Israel’s Jewishness is such that it is able to encompass diverse forms and concepts of Judaism while coexisting with the country’s democratic character; or whether we are dealing with a constricting Judaism that sanctifies an extremist interpretation of halakha and thus clashes inherently with democratic values.

We see these struggles being waged before our eyes within the government, the Knesset and in the daily Israeli discourse. We recognize it in the incompatibility between the values of rabbis Shmuel Eliahu and Dov Lior, who have called for Israel’s Palestinian citizens to be harmed or boycotted, and an encompassing Judaism that seeks to love and respect every person as a human being. The struggle is also apparent in the approach of some MKs to the Supreme Court and to civil law. In many senses, the way we choose to categorize the Jewish state is also the way in which we will cope with racism or determine the status of asylum seekers.

Some of those who identify themselves with the liberal camp in Israel resolve these tensions by becoming alienated from Israel’s Jewish identity and wishing for a liberal-democratic state based on universal values. The result, ostensibly, is a battle between nonbelieving secular individuals and religiously observant people, between those who love and revere Judaism and those who disparage it and want to break away from it.

I believe that this approach is not only mistaken but will have a boomerang effect by reinforcing a radical religious outlook and weakening democracy. Because in a situation in which the majority of Israelis will seek to discard the state’s Jewishness completely, they will opt for the total opposite.

Accordingly, within the framework of the renewed definition of the relations between state and religion, it is incumbent upon us to address first and foremost the meaning of Judaism, and to consider its leaders and their diversity as well as the values the country stands for.

At the very least, we must be ready and willing to struggle for the image of Judaism just as we do for Israel’s democratic image. When that Judaism is reshaped and becomes more diverse, we will also be able to forge a more democratic society in Israel.

The writer is executive director of Israel Hofsheet (Be Free Israel) and a member of the Tel Aviv municipality on behalf of Meretz.