Of the million or so Jews who came to Israel under its Law of Return after the collapse of the Soviet Union, almost half weren’t recognized as Jews by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
As of last year, of the 32,600 new Israelis who were warmly welcomed by the state, 17,700 were not considered Jewish enough by the rabbinate. This aliyah schizophrenia has caused unwarranted hardships for countless individuals. It also brings the Jewish religion into disrepute in the eyes of many.
Writing in Tablet magazine, Alex Zeldin warns readers of the implications: “The rabbinate is failing Jews from the former Soviet Union. In the process, it is creating an enormous rift in the Jewish world and setting a disturbing precedent for the overwhelming majority of Diaspora Jews who, like their Russian-speaking brethren in Israel, increasingly do not fit neatly within the narrow definition of Jewishness as defined by the evermore extreme rabbinate.”
Many of those who have been prevented from marrying under the auspices of the rabbinate have sought alternative arrangements.
Conservative and Reform rabbis have responded to them by helping to formalize their Jewish status before officiating at their marriage ceremonies. Some Orthodox rabbis have also chosen to disregard the unwarranted strictures of their establishment. For example, ITIM is an Orthodox organization in Israel that’s determined to break the ultra-Orthodox monopoly by reaching out to people in need of help.
The plight of Jews not recognized as Jews has also had political consequences. Disaffected immigrants from the former Soviet Union were among those who joined Yisrael Beiteinu, the political party led by Avigdor Lieberman that tries to appeal to Russian-speaking Israelis.
Though Lieberman had served in previous governments with ultra-Orthodox ministers, he said that he’d only join the government after the general election last April, on the condition that the Knesset pass a law that obligates ultra-Orthodox yeshivah students to serve in the Israel Defence Forces in the same way as other citizens. In the absence of such assurances from his would-be coalition partners, Lieberman refused to join the government. As a result, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not muster a majority and called another election, which is scheduled to take place next month. The outcome is still very unclear.
And it’s not only new immigrants who are being victimized by Israel’s rabbinic establishment. Many other Israelis are adversely affected in various ways. A recent report by the Pew Research Center describes Israel as one of the 20 most religiously restrictive countries in the world – together with Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the like.
Victims include women whose marriages have broken down, but whose husbands refuse to divorce them. Jewish law bestows sole rights on a man to divorce his wife. As a religious divorce is required in Israel for a woman to remarry, the result is devastating for those left in limbo, and for their children. The organization that offers them legal and psychological help is aptly named Mavoi Satum (dead end).
Members of the LGBTQ community are also among the victims of the rabbinate’s ironclad control. The current minister of education, Rabbi Rafi Peretz, recently expressed his support for conversion therapy for gays and lesbians. When many Israelis reacted in horror, he retracted his statement, though it seemed disingenuous and politically motivated.
Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Jerusalem, doesn’t labour under such constraints. He has stated that homosexuals cannot be religious because religious Jews know how to control their urges. He elaborated by stating that homosexual men and women sin against the Jewish people with their bodies.
For too long, Israeli public figures, particularly politicians, have been more interested in placating the ultra-Orthodox than defending the rights of Israel’s citizens. Yet with the election upcoming, things may be changing soon – for the better.