Israel: Jewish State Or Orthodox State?

Pluralism is not alive and well in Israel.

Standing at the Western Wall this past summer, I felt profoundly uncomfortable. This is strange because I am a committed Conservative Jew and the Kotel is one of our holiest sites. The sentiment many American Jews share about the Western Wall — that it is the Jewish people’s holiest site and that it is a place at which spiritual epiphanies can take place — could not have been further from the truth in my case. In fact, the Kotel was a religious turn-off for me. Because I am not Orthodox, I felt like I did not belong there.

The Kotel has a mehitza to separate the men from the women; this is a practice only the Orthodox sect of Judaism still endorses. Less than 20 percent of Israeli Jews consider themselves Orthodox, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, so then why should the other 80 percent have to make sacrifices which subjugate their own beliefs? Maybe the Kotel should be divided into three sections: one exclusively for men, one exclusively for women and one for both.

Perhaps my disillusionment with the Kotel was so apparent because I was on a pluralistic program that welcomed open discussion and debate. I had the great opportunity of traveling to Israel for five weeks this summer on the Bronfman Youth Fellowships. I experienced Israel with 25 other Jewish teenagers from all over North America; the fellows came from 12 states and Canada and ranged in religious observance from Orthodox to unaffiliated and everywhere in between.

The Bronfman experience made me question and think critically about my beliefs. We studied Jewish texts with four extraordinary educators from different denominations and had intense, thought-provoking conversations about Judaism and Israel. Each fellow felt comfortable expressing his or her beliefs and the discussions served to help us understand each other and even more fully understand our own beliefs and values. I most appreciated the intellectual curiosity and mutual respect Bronfman fostered.

On the other hand, at the Western Wall there was no tolerance for the fact that I believe in an egalitarian form of Judaism. As I walked towards the wall, I was quickly accosted by Orthodox men insisting that I put on tefillin. I respectfully declined and went to the wall. I joined a group of men to make a minyan, but I could not make any sort of connection to the prayers or to the historic site. This was disappointing and frustrating for me.

The Kotel is just one part of Israel, one that is monopolized by Orthodoxy in Israel. There are too many to list, but I will discuss a few that struck me as unfair as an American Jew in Israel.

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, comprised exclusively of Orthodox rabbis, controls kashrut certifications, marriage, divorce and conversions in Israel. Non-Orthodox movements like Reform and Masorti (similar to North America’s Conservative Judaism) are not even recognized by the State of Israel. In the Jewish state, a Christian or Muslim marriage is legal, but a Reform Jewish marriage is not. Orthodox synagogues and schools receive more government funding than do non-Orthodox establishments. These aspects certainly do not make me feel at home or welcome in what American Jews like to call our “home away from home.”

For one of our five Shabbats in Israel, each American fellow stayed with an Israeli fellow’s family. I had the opportunity to stay with a Russian Jew who made aliyah several years ago under the Law of Return, which permits people with one Jewish grandparent to gain automatic Israeli citizenship. Though my Russian friend was considered a Jew for the sake of immigration, if he ever wants to get married in his new homeland he will have to convert to Judaism because his mother is not Jewish.

My friend does not subscribe to Orthodox beliefs; he considers himself Jewish despite the fact that halakhically, he is not. But in Israel there is only one official way to convert: through the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. My friend did not complain about this issue; he just accepts it as part of Israeli life. But I kept thinking about how unfair this law is. Israel recognizes and accepts non-halachic Jews for the purpose of immigration, but will not consider them Jewish once they move to the state.

On the Bronfman program we heard from several representatives of non-governmental organizations. Among them was Itim, an independent, non-profit organization which helps converts work their way through the complications of the Orthodox conversion process. We went to the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), a Reform movement organization, which fights to gain equal recognition and funding under the law for non-Orthodox movements. We also heard a presentation from Bema’aglei Tzedek, a nonprofit organization that gives free certifications to ethical restaurants. Under the existing Orthodox kashrut monopoly, ethical treatment of workers and accessibility to the disabled, for example, are not considered in the certification process.

How do Israelis feel about these problems? In a recent survey of 1,200 Israelis by Hiddush, a new non-denominational progressive Jewish organization demanding religious freedom and diversity in Israel, 63 percent of Israelis back equal state funding for all Jewish denominations and 92 percent of Israel’s secular Jews said they favor abolishing the Orthodox monopoly on marriage. Public opinion in Israel is clear. Now in North America we need to raise awareness of these injustices in Israel and work to support the majority of Israelis who are demanding change.

As American Jews we too often place Israel on a pedestal rather than examine it critically and objectively. In my opinion we, a large majority of North American Jews, are failing to be true Israel supporters. True supporters are there when Israel is right, but they should also be there to offer constructive criticism when there are unresolved issues in Israel. I consider myself a strong supporter of Israel, which is why I am writing this article: to magnify the fine print so many of us overlook when we discuss the Jewish state.

Isn’t it time that Israel recognizes the fact that the vast majority of the Jewish community in and out of Israel is non-Orthodox? Isn’t it time that Israel respects and accepts all Jewish beliefs? As supporters of Israel who are not afraid to offer constructive criticism, we must insist that Israel reflect and respect all Jewish beliefs regardless of denomination.

Josh Rubin is a senior at Solomon Schechter High School of Long Island.

This article was reprinted from October 30, 2009.