Perspective 62. Religious Pluralism in Israel: For Jews As Well?
In Israel fourteen different faiths -- Judaism, Islam, Druze, Bahai, and ten Christian denominations -- are recognized and to some extent supported by the state. Religious freedom is guaranteed in principle and supported by courts. Is Israel therefore a model of religious pluralism?
No. While Muslims and Christians face little or no official interference in their practices, Reform and Conservative Jews contend with intense hostility from within the Israel establishment. Only Orthodox Judaism is officially recognized, and the non-Orthodox -- including secular Israeli Jews -- live within parameters largely set by the Orthodox Rabbinate on such matters as marriage, divorce, burial, conversion, public transportation on Shabat (sabbath), and access to religious sites.
Only some twenty percent of Israeli Jews identify as Orthodox (dati) or ultra-Orthodox (haredi). But through their political parties they control a like percentage of Knesset seats and have been an essential part of most government coalitions. This has been especially true in the era of Likud dominance since 1977, dooming efforts to loosen the Orthodox grip on power.
For example, a 2016 deal that would have created a non-Orthodox prayer space near the Western Wall -- arguably Judaism's holiest site -- was shelved by Prime Minister Netanyahu because of his dependence on religious parties.
This is not simply a polite disagreement over preferred rituals. The venom displayed by Orthodox political figures toward the Reform movement, in particular, has long since exceeded any measure of decency and sobriety. Most recently, the election of Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv to the Knesset (representing the Labor Party) has evoked an especially virulent torrent of abuse.
Rabbi Yaakov Litzman, chair of a haredi party, ranted at Kariv: "You are a Christian priest [komer]. You are not a rabbi. Take off your kippah [skullcap] . . . . We must pass a law that this Reformer must return to America and stop destroying religion here."
Actually, the increasingly shrill tone of the haredi assault on Reform Judaism may reflect something positive. Because of their ties to Netanyahu, the haredi parties are not in the current government. And there are signs that public pressure against religious coercion may finally force some overdue changes.
The current government, ironically, is headed for the first time in Israel's history by a Prime Minister who wears a kippah. But Naftali Bennett, as many in modern Orthodox (dati) circles, may be weary of the generous subsidies handed out to haredi schools -- and even more of haredi avoidance of military service, which other religious Jews do not avoid.
So the storm over Reform may be a harbinger of a welcome shift, as Israel's besotted zealots sense power slipping away.