If asked, most American Jews would assert that Israel was founded as a democratic State in 1948. However, that “democracy” does not resemble ours in the United States. Simply put, Israel’s “democracy” does not separate “church and state”; meaning that certain Jewish laws are supported and enforced by the government. And that fact, especially as it’s evolved over the last sixty-five years, has created an environment that lacks civility, tolerance, and respect for the majority of Israel’s citizens; over 90% of whom are more secular than religious.
First, how did we get here? David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, set the ground rules. It was decided that the new nation would:
- Waive military service for the ultra-orthodox (400 men at the outset) so this small population could revive Jewish culture and observance in the wake of the Holocaust;
- Declare the Sabbath – Shabbat — as an official day of rest from work;
- Maintain the laws of Kashrut (keeping kosher) in kitchens of official institutions (i.e. government buildings, museums, etc.);
- Ensure that laws pertaining to marriage and divorce fell under the jurisdiction of the rabbinical courts; and
- Set national minimum standards of education in certain fields of study (i.e. Hebrew, Jewish History, Science, etc.)
Although these issues appear to be basic, they established the basis of the relationship between “church and state” in Israel. And now, things have run amok.
Today, Israel’s population is about 7.6 million. The ultra-orthodox sect makes up between eight and ten percent of it; about 760,000 people. Half are unemployed, 70% live in poverty or are on welfare, and 37,000 (men who are eligible) do not serve in the army. All of that, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. The cold, black ice beneath is where the real danger lies. This extreme right-wing group is using its interpretations of Jewish Law – Halachah – to infringe upon the liberties of others. The ultra-orthodox has abused its power; they’ve crossed the line from being the “keepers of the faith” to manipulators of the Halachah and violators of civil rights. And women, in particular, are most negatively affected.
If a Conservative Jewish woman, living in Israel, wants to be married by her own Conservative rabbi, she can’t. (Marriage ceremonies conducted by Conservative or Reform rabbis are not considered to be legitimate.) If a woman wants a divorce from her husband, but he won’t give her one, she legally must remain married to him. (According to Halachah, the husband must initiate or be willing to grant a divorce.) If someone converts to Judaism and then wants to move to Israel, the conversion (if performed by a Conservative or Reform rabbi) may not be deemed Halachically valid. If a woman buries a loved one, she cannot say the Mourner’s Prayer – Kaddish – at the cemetery. If a woman dresses “immodestly” out in public, she might be spit at or stoned. If a woman wants to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, she must do so quietly in a small, segregated section of the Wall. As a matter of fact, a woman named Anat Hoffman was arrested at the Wall just this week “for the crime of wearing a tallit [a prayer shawl] and praying out loud.” Certainly God DID NOT intend for Judaism to be exclusively by and for men!
Somehow … for some reason … American Jews naively don’t expect to hear – and don’t want to hear – about bad things happening in a Jewish State; certainly not things like these. But truthfully, the majority of us either doesn’t know what’s going on, simply ignores it, or doesn’t know what to do about it. (In a brief conversation on this topic with a cousin who lives in Israel, he rightly points out that we are equally ignorant of abuses of human rights here in America or in other countries.)
America needs a strong, healthy, “democratic” Israel in the Middle East. It’s time for more of us here to develop an awareness and an understanding of the civil issues in Israel’s society, get personally invested, and engage directly in ways that promote change. If compromises are not brokered and accepted, these internal struggles between brothers and sisters will damage Israel even more than the effects of rocket fire from its hostile neighbors.