When the U.S. State Department criticizes Israel for its lack of progress towards religious tolerance and freedom, American Jews should pay attention.
Last month’s official report cited the Israeli government’s general respect for freedom of worship in practice, but detailed many areas in which the right to freedom of religion, respected by all modern democracies, is curtailed or shortchanged by Israel’s relinquishment of civil authority to the Orthodox establishment and Muslim/Christian religious authorities. Marriage, burial, conversion and other personal-status issues are in the hands of an increasingly inflexible ultra-Orthodox hierarchy, and without recourse to civil alternatives, the many Israelis who are non-Orthodox are held hostage to a particularly undemocratic overlap of religion and state.
The New Israel Fund has fought for religious tolerance and pluralism since our founding thirty years ago. We are realists, and we know that the Israeli parliamentary system of coalition government grants power to the religious parties out of proportion to those who actually support them. Given the political stasis, we and the organizations we support are creative in finding ways around the system, most notably in assisting pro-pluralism, liberal Orthodox groups to enlarge their presence in their own community. We also support innovative, alternative paths to pluralism and Jewish identity, from alternative marriage ceremonies to a secular yeshiva in Tel Aviv that teaches Judaism in the context of modern humanist values and social justice.
The New Israel Fund is not anti-Orthodox. Indeed, we are proud of our support of Orthodox groups that strive to unite traditional religious practice with democratic values. However, we are saddened by the outrage expressed by some American Orthodox groups over the State Department report. Israel is not as bad as Iran, go pay attention to them, seems to be the message here. Well, let us hope that Israel aspires to more than parity with repressive theocracies.
And as for American Jews who support and contribute to organizations that combat the influence of the religious right at home, we must hold Israel to the same standard as our own pluralistic democracy. Religious practice is an issue for the practitioner’s beliefs and conscience. The right to those practices is absolute, but ends at the place where the state imposes them on other people whose beliefs and practices differ.