The passing last week of the nation-state law by the Knesset elicited cries of concern and disappointment throughout the Jewish world, and dire warnings that Israel is headed in the opposite direction of democracy. Seven years in the making, the law was significantly watered-down by the time it passed – an earlier version supported “Jewish-only settlement” as a quasi-constitutional value, for example, whereas the final version references only “Jewish settlement” – but not sufficiently to placate its many critics.
Judging by the degree of public anger at the Netanyahu coalition, you might have expected Israelis to take to the streets. And they did, kind of. On Sunday, 100,000 demonstrated in Tel Aviv – not against the nation-state law, mind you, but in protest of another bill passed last week by the Knesset, which effectively outlawed surrogacy for gay parents. That law was widely seen as the prime minister’s trade-off to ultra-Orthodox parties in exchange for their voting in favour of the nation-state law. (Netanyahu has denied any such deal, but had previously signalled support for gay surrogacy only to suddenly vote against it; ahead of Sunday’s protest, he pledged to support a bill granting gay surrogacy rights at some undetermined future point.)
Sunday’s protest in Tel Aviv was attended by all sorts of Israelis – gay, straight, religious and non-religious. Israeli media covered the events closely. Watching the scene unfold, you might have quietly reviewed the latest questions about Israel’s democratic nature and come to the conclusion that, whatever the objections to the nation-state law, democracy is indeed alive and well in Israel.
Within that democracy, though, gay men who wish to father children have a legitimate and serious grievance. So too do all Jews interested in religious equality in Israel, after a leading Conservative rabbi was detained in Haifa last Thursday. Police woke Rabbi Dov Haiyun at 5:30 a.m. to question him about officiating weddings outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate. The Rabbinical Court in Haifa had apparently filed a complaint against Rabbi Haiyun, who leads the Moriah Synagogue and has performed Masorti weddings in Israel for years. His apparent crime is punishable by a two-year prison sentence, though this appears to be the first time police have responded to this type of allegation in such a forceful manner.
After he was questioned, Rabbi Haiyun took to Facebook, proclaiming: “Iran is already here.” The Conservative movement condemned the actions of the police. So too did a large number of Jews dissatisfied by the Orthodox stranglehold on marriage and divorce in Israel. Many saw a clear connection to Jewish history – the rabbi was apprehended during the nine days of mourning leading up to Tisha b’Av, the saddest day on the Hebrew calendar, when we mourn the destruction of the temples, the second one, we are told, burned due to Jewish infighting.
Meanwhile, amid the parsing of the nation-state bill relatively little attention was being paid to Article 6, which proclaims: “the state will act to preserve the cultural, historical and religious legacy of the Jewish people among the Jewish diaspora.” After last week, it’s an open question how exactly the Jewish state thinks it can accomplish that.