Israel’s semi-theocracy also discriminates against Jews

by Yaniv Reich on November 18, 2009

We often hear about Israeli discrimination against its Arab citizens and against Palestinians under occupation. It is in fact “common knowledge”, according to Judge Yuval Shadmi.

One aspect of discrimination that we don’t often hear about is Israel’s formal system of discrimination against Jews. What do I mean? Israel is not a secular state. Its a sort of semi-theocracy: consciously self-styled as Jewish, with important organs of state controlled by Orthodox rabbis, although freedom of religion is allowed. The IDF has a branch of military rabbis, including those responsible for religious motivation and ethics in Israel’s wars:

“[There is] a biblical ban on surrendering a single millimeter of it [the Land of Israel] to gentiles, though all sorts of impure distortions and foolishness of autonomy, enclaves and other national weaknesses. We will not abandon it to the hands of another nation, not a finger, not a nail of it.” This is an excerpt from a publication entitled “Daily Torah studies for the soldier and the commander in Operation Cast Lead,” issued by the IDF rabbinate.

But I digress slightly. Returning to domestic and social life, the Chief Rabbinate controls national policy around keeping kosher (in restaurants, stores, schools, etc), around observing Shabbat (the sabbath), the regulations of Jewish burial and marriage, and the conversion of gentiles into Judaism. But the official interpretation of Judaism as embodied by this establishment Judaism is of a strict and religious variety, which most Israelis do not identify with. The state-sponsored religion is more extreme than the median Israeli religious person.

In practice, therefore, Israel has a variety of laws and regulations that discriminate against, for example, the reform branch of Judaism. If I were a gentile and wanted to convert to reform Judaism, then I would not be considered “Jewish” according to the state of Israel (I gloss over some technical issues that are more detail than needed). This official semi-theocracy thus puts Israel in a unique category among modern democracies as having institutions that discriminate purposefully against Jews.

To drive home this point, I highlight the case of a woman who was arrested today at the Western Wall in Jerusalem because she was wearing a prayer shall (the typical domain of men). This woman belongs to a branch of Judaism that believes in the equality of sexes, as opposed to the strict gender segregation of religious and social life supported by the Orthodox religious leadership in the country.

Haaretz covers the story:

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, associate director of Israel’s reform movement, said that all over the world women are entitled to wear the tallit, and only in the land of the Jews are they excluded from the social custom and even arrested for praying.

“Israeli police should be ashamed of themselves,” Kariv said.

Last week Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Israel’s chief Sephardi rabbi, said during his weekly sermon that the women in the feminist movement are “stupid” and act the way they do out of a selfish desire for equality, not “for heavens’ sake.”

Rabbi Ovadia also said about the groups’ custom to pray at the Western Wall that “there are stupid women who come to the Western Wall, put on a tallit (prayer shawl), and pray,” and added that they should be condemned.

In a recent report, the US Department of State reached a similar conclusion about religious discrimination in Israel:

The status of respect for religious freedom by the Government was unchanged during the reporting period. Government allocations of state resources favored Orthodox (including Modern and National Religious streams of Orthodoxy) and ultra-Orthodox (sometimes referred to as “Haredi”) Jewish religious groups and institutions, discriminating against non-Jews and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. Officials at the Ministry of the Interior blocked three Messianic Jews (persons who identify as Jews and follow Jewish traditions but who believe Jesus was the Messiah) seeking to immigrate to the country under the Law of Return and continued to differentiate between Jews and non-Jews on national identification documents.

This is precisely the problem with state-sponsored religion, in my view, and provides a strong argument in favor of the separation of religion and state.

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