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Background on Israel

Religious Pluralism 


The issue of civil and religious rights for non-Orthodox Jews in Israel is one of the most important issues facing Progressive Judaism worldwide.

Although there has always been tension in Israel between the religious establishment and progressive or secular Jews, it has never been as heated or intense as the current crisis between the Orthodox authorities and the progressive Jewish movements. Beginning with the "Who is a Jew?" debates in the 1980s, the issue has increasingly become more complex and emotional.

In North America, 86 percent of affiliated Jews belong to Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist synagogues. In Israel, although non-Orthodox movements are quickly becoming a viable alternative for Israelis, fewer than 4 percent of Israeli Jews claim to belong to these movements. Although the numbers vary significantly depending on polling reports, it is commonly accepted that the religious population represents somewhere between 25 to 33 percent, with the remainder identifying as secular. This is not a totally complete picture as a large percentage, often as high as 55 percent, of Israeli secular Jews consider themselves "traditional but not religious."1 This statistic manifests itself in polls such as one taken by the Orthodox Union in January 1998, which indicated that one-third of the Israeli public would prefer non-Orthodox officiation of its religious rites.

Governance of holy sites and religious rituals is under the purview of religious councils. Both at a national and city level, the councils have traditionally been composed entirely of Orthodox rabbis, resulting in skewed decisions that have significantly limited the movement and freedom of egalitarian Judaism. This complete control of the religious councils extends the power of the Orthodox to marriage and divorce, conversion, burial, and many other elements of society. Orthodox control over marriage and divorce is one of the most obvious and intrusive issues: since there is no civil authority which performs these processes, even non-Orthodox must marry in accordance with Orthodox law. The Orthodox rabbinate's monopoly over marriage and divorce forces a vast number of Israeli citizens to leave their own country to make these life decisions, and undermines the ability of non-Orthodox rabbis to perform their duties in Israel.

The Conversion Crisis

The religious pluralism issue which has received the most attention is the so-called "conversion crisis." The crisis began in November 1996 with a Supreme Court case which considered recognizing non-Orthodox conversions in Israel. The Orthodox community responded by introducing a bill in the Knesset that would legally prevent the recognition of all conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis whether performed in Israel or the Diaspora.

The Reform and Conservative Movements considered this an attack on their existence in Israel, and began a court case challenging the legitimacy of the legislation. In response to this major confrontation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Finance Minister Yaacov Ne'eman to head up a commission to find a viable solution for a number of the pressing issues. The Ne'eman Commission was charged with seeking a resolution for disagreements concerning who can serve on religious councils and who can perform marriage ceremonies, conversions, and prayer services at the Western Wall. The Commission, made up of one Reform, one Conservative, one Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and three Orthodox representatives, met from July 1997 to January 1998 and dealt primarily with the conversion issue. A compromise was developed which allowed for non-Orthodox conversions but required Orthodox supervision.

In a blow to the progressive movements in Israel and to Jewish unity, in February 1998, the Orthodox establishment in Israel rejected outright the proposals which the Ne'eman Commission had developed. The Chief Rabbinate denounced any discussion or cooperation with Reform and Conservative representatives, rendering the Commission's recommendations null and void.

After the resolution was released, Rabbi Uri Regev of the Israel Religious Action Center and Rabbi Ehud Bandel of the Masorti Movement in Israel made the following statement:

"The Chief Rabbinate's resolution is a resounding slam of the door of compromise and a declaration of war on the Jewish people. We hope that the Knesset, with all political parties acting unanimously, will not support such divisive legislation and will prevent a terrible tear in the Jewish People. Our movements have proven readiness to accept a far-reaching compromise and make great concessions to bring peace and unity to the Jewish People. The refusal to extend a hand for peace and to cooperate with the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism returns the public of Israel to the real struggle standing before it — the struggle for freedom of religion and conscience."

In response to this attack by the Orthodox establishment, the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel re-initiated their court cases challenging the legitimacy of the Knesset to prevent non-Orthodox conversions.

The Supreme Court ruled on February 20, 2002, that the Ministry of Interior should register in the Population Registry as Jews 24 people, who converted to Judaism under the auspices of the Reform and the Conservative Movements, in Israel or abroad. The decision was accepted by a majority of 9 out of 11 judges. One judge totally rejected the recognition of non-Orthodox conversion while another judge rejected it until further legislation on the matter. He joined the majority decision, however, due to the prolonged suffering of the appellants. The Supreme Court refrained from ruling on two other petitions, which regarded the recognition of Reform and Modern Orthodox converts for the purpose of the Law of Return, which is the law by which Jews are naturalized in Israel

On March 31, 2005, the Israel Supreme Court ordered the government to recognize "leaping conversions," non-Orthodox conversions in which the study process was conducted in Israel but was finalized overseas. Such individuals will now be considered Jews according to the Law of Return, a humanitarian policy which awards immediate citizenship and benefits to Jews wishing to settle in Israel.

The ruling was widely viewed as a major victory for Reform Jewish interests in Israel, as it removes an obstacle to complete recognition of all denominations of Judaism in the eyes of the government. The court ruled on two petitions filed by the Center for Jewish Pluralism and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. The Court declined to rule on a second part of the petition which asked the Court to force Israel to recognize non-Orthodox conversions finalized inside the country. However, Supreme Court President Judge Aharon Barak opined in a non-binding part of his decision that there were, in fact, no legal grounds for the State to continue to refuse to recognize non-Orthodox conversions performed entirely in Israel. IRAC promised to continue to petition the Court for complete and total recognition of non-Orthodox conversions in all its manifestations.

Women of the Wall

Following the First International Jewish Feminist Conference in Jerusalem in December 1988, a group of women began gathering at the Kotel to pray together on Rosh Hodesh. The ultra-Orthodox responded by physically and verbally attacking the women, forcing the women to ask the courts for protection. Sixteen years later, Women of the Wall is still fighting the same battle, slowly gaining ground in the fight to pray with Torah and tallitot (prayer shawls), to sing, and to pray together at the Kotel.

In a landmark decision on May 22, 2002, the court ruled in Women of the Wall’s favor, and women were granted the right to read Torah and wear ritual garb at the wall. However, just four days latter, Shas submited several bills to override the Supreme Court decision. This included one that would make the actions of communal prayer by women punishable by a fine and seven years in prison.

In April 2013, the Supreme Court acquitted five women who were arrested for praying at the Western Wall and ruled that women are not prohibited from praying in the women's section. However, women have still faced problems exercising their right to pray.

In January 2016, the Israeli Government approved a historic agreement to construct an enhanced egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. This came as a result of years of activism and negotiations between Women of the Wall, the Reform Movement, the Conservative Movement, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Government of Israel.

For more in depth analysis of this case, please consult the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC).