The Israeli government decision on June 25, 2017, to freeze the Western Wall (Kotel) agreement and advance a conversion bill was dramatic, as were the responses from Jewish leaders and organizations in the United States, Israel and other countries. This, of course, did not occur in a vacuum and should be understood in the proper Israeli political, social and demographic context.
These events highlight the importance of conducting two serious and related discussions. The first is within Israeli society regarding the nature of the relationship between religion and state. The second regards Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora: what does it mean on a symbolic and a practical level for Israel to be the “homeland for all the Jews”?
Navigating these issues with sensitivity and resolving them quickly is important for maintaining Jewish unity, in Israel and between Israel and the Diaspora.
We note that this analysis reflects primarily an Israeli viewpoint and focuses upon the resultant consequences in Israel, since these decisions, regardless of their impact on world Jewry, were made within Israel’s political system. It is equally important to examine the issue from a perspective of the Diaspora communities, specifically American Jewry. An early conclusion concerning this matter, and one Israeli decision makers should consider, is that decisions regarding religion and state in Israel affect, and are stirring a debate about the continued centrality of Israel to Jewish identity in the Diaspora.
On January 31, 2016, after years of delicate negotiations, the Reform and Conservative movements, Women of the Wall, the Israeli government represented by the Prime Minister’s office, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish Federations of North America – reached an agreement to designate the southern part of the Western Wall officially as an area for non-Orthodox prayer.1 The agreement, called “historic” by some of the participants, was to upgrade and expand the current platform (in use for egalitarian prayer since 2000 and which has received some gradual physical upgrades over the years), create a visible and official entrance on par with the main “Orthodox” sections of the wall, and grant public funding for the site. Most importantly for the Reform and Conservative movements, the agreement would have defined the southern section as officially a part of the Western Wall and as a holy site, which it currently is not, as well as establish a governing council that would include representatives of their respective movements.
Following approval by the cabinet, an outcry in ultra-Orthodox circles forced the political leadership of their parties to wage a fight to cancel the plan. 2 The result was that a year and a half later – when the plan was not yet implemented because of the political hurdles involved – and to the surprise of many, the government announced (June 25, 2017) that it was shelving the plan.
On the same day, the ministers’ committee on legislation approved a controversial “conversion bill”. This was somewhat overshadowed by the Kotel developments but is no less significant for non-Orthodox, as well as modern Orthodox, Judaism in Israel. This was a move by the ultra-Orthodox parties to tank the Reform and Conservative movements’ (and liberal Orthodoxy’s) efforts, in the High Court of Justice to have conversions conducted outside of the Chief Rabbinate be recognized for the purpose of gaining citizenship. If the conversion bill becomes law (which requires Knesset approval), Reform and Conservative, as well as all other conversions, of non-Israelis conducted in Israel and outside the official Orthodox conversion system, would not be recognized by the state for citizenship purposes.
What these decisions do and do not mean
On the practical level, freezing the agreement means that the inclusion of the site as a part of the Western Wall, and defining it as a holy site (including the legal protections inherent in such a move), and the establishment of a visible and equal entrance, as well as of a governing council including Reform and Conservative representatives, will not happen, at least not under the current government. (A court discussion scheduled for late August could change the situation.)
However, headlines aside, this does not mean that liberal Jewry has no place to pray near the Western Wall. The current site, although not ideal, and legally vulnerable, has been and will, for the time being, continue to be in use for egalitarian prayer. Moreover, it will likely receive some important physical upgrades through government funding, albeit less than what was agreed upon, as announced by Cabinet Secretary Braverman. Relatedly, Women of the Wall, who had already won the right to pray on the women’s side with prayer shawls and phylacteries (tallit and tefillin) and read from the Torah, will continue to pressure the ultra-Orthodox administration of the site in the Courts. It should be noted that the government is currently seeking to adapt the legislation to force Women of the Wall to conduct their prayers in the egalitarian section, once upgrades are in place. 3
Regarding the conversion law, if it passes (and as of this writing it is not clear whether it has majority support in the Knesset – and if it does pass, it will likely be amended, though it is not clear how), it will do little to change the de-facto status of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel today. Currently, Reform and Conservative conversions conducted abroad are recognized by the Interior Ministry for the sake of citizenship (Law of Return) but not by the Rabbinate; and the new law will not affect such conversions. Furthermore, Reform and Conservative conversions conducted in Israel for Israeli citizens are currently recognized for the Interior Ministry’s registry but again, not by the Rabbinate (marriage).
So what will change? Based on a March 2016 High Court precedent that ruled the state must recognize private Orthodox conversion courts for the sake of granting citizenship, the Reform and Conservative movements sought similar recognition for their conversions for non-citizens within Israel. To date, the matter of conversion in Israel has never been defined by law, unlike marriage, which by law is run by the Orthodox Rabbinate. The bill aims to prevent such a court decision as well as to overturn the ability of private Orthodox conversions to confer Israeli citizenship, establishing for the first time a legal monopoly over conversion in Israel.
The bill’s supporters cite the need to maintain oversight over a process that grants citizenship, particularly to ensure that migrants and political asylum seekers, such as from Africa or the Palestinian territories, who are not considered sincere convert applicants, cannot take advantage of more lenient or even fake conversion processes to gain citizenship. Conversely, the heads of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel note that they had already agreed to criteria as to the conversion applicants and that they would not conduct conversions on such asylum-seekers. They further fear that were the Rabbinate to gain greater control over the conversion process, it could eventually attempt to overturn the ability of community rabbis abroad, of any denomination, to convert for the sake of making Aliyah.
Numbers and politics
With much of the discussion centering on the moral, symbolic, and international implications of these recent moves, it is important to acknowledge that demographic changes and the resulting political power won the day. Though recent developments have been perceived by some as part of a pattern pointing toward the direction of Judaism in Israel or Israel’s desired relationship with Diaspora Jewry, the underlying political context must also be taken into account.
The political calculation is simple: Prime Minister Netanyahu’s current governing coalition has 66 of 120 Knesset seats. The ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism) hold a combined 13 seats in this coalition and remain firmly opposed to any move that a) breaks the state/religion status quo or b) grants recognition, in any way, to non-Orthodox Jewish movements. A segment of the Jewish Home (HaBayit HaYehudi) party’s 8 seats is also opposed to such moves. This means that there is an opposition to such moves of 13 to possibly as many as 18 members within the coalition. This represents a significant group within a 66-member coalition that the Prime Minister, for a variety of reasons, wants to preserve.
It is important to note that the opposition of the Haredi parties to changing the status quo is not only a power-play. There is deep ideology involved as the representatives of these Haredi parties genuinely believe in the need to guard the “true” traditional Judaism from what they view as corrupting forces of “modernization and assimilation.” They see the Reform and Conservative movements (as opposed to secular Judaism) as threats to Judaism, since from the Orthodox point of view these movements redefine the very meaning of Judaism and Torah observance while lacking the authority to do so.
It is also important to keep in mind that the more progressive forms of Judaism are not widespread in Israel. Non-Orthodox forms of Judaism barely existed in Israel until the 1970s and only really began to take root over the past couple of decades. Until recently, Israelis tended to be secular, traditional, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. The old saying goes that “the synagogue the average Israeli does not attend is Orthodox.” While this dynamic is in the process of changing, as a growing number of secular and traditional Israelis are connecting to Judaism through non-Orthodox options, there are still today only around 30,000 formally affiliated members of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel (12,000 adult members).4 Add to this a small group of egalitarian liberal Orthodox activists, and perhaps a few thousands committed to the separation of religion and state, and you are still left with a wildly lopsided field.
Israel’s Jewish population today, which stands at 6.5 million people (out of 8.7 million citizens) is roughly 9 percent ultra-Orthodox, and 13 percent National-Religious (half the latter of whom tend to espouse more conservative social views).5 On matters of religion and state, these groups often enjoy the tacit support of a significant group of “traditional” Israelis (29 percent), whose Jewishness is Orthodox, even if they do not practice it fully. Anecdotally, one only needs to show up at the Kotel at random times and count the black-hat clad worshipers at the main (Orthodox) section, compared with the number of Reform and Conservative worshipers at Robinson’s arch, or witness the size of an ultra-Orthodox demonstration as compared to the Reform and Conservative one following the recent government decision (which attracted no more than 1,500 people), to understand the preponderance of power. The numbers, beyond their symbolic aspect, belie commitment to the cause.
Things are, of course, slowly changing. Polling in recent years does show that anywhere from 5 percent 6 to 12 percent 7 of Israeli Jews, with the most accurate figures probably around 7 percent , 8 identify with the Reform and Conservative movements if given such a choice. Indeed, the Reform and Conservative movements each report that a few hundreds of thousands of Israelis regularly attend (at least a few times each year) their religious services, life-cycle events and cultural programming, without officially belonging to a community. These are significant numbers no doubt, and would be especially so were they to translate into political weight. However, at this time they do not. Beyond that, most Jews who identify with the Reform and Conservative movements support the parties in opposition to the current ruling coalition.
Beyond that, while a majority of Israeli Jews (over 60 percent) and a vast majority of secular Jews (over 80 percent) support the original Kotel decision and the establishment of an egalitarian section, 9 few have been willing to do much about it, as only 11 percent 10 of Israeli Jews place the issue high enough on their political agenda and are far more concerned with day-to-day issues such as marriage freedom or transportation and shopping options on the Sabbath. That said, the largely secular Israeli electorate has shown that when frustrations rise, it is capable of coalescing around its opposition to what it sees as the undue influence of the ultra-Orthodox over public affairs in Israel. The Yesh Atid party taking 19 seats in the 2013 elections is the most recent example, with the ultra-Orthodox avoidance of military service as one of the main issues in its platform.
The hard truth, regardless of which side of the debate one supports, is that the Reform and Conservative movements do not at this time have widespread political power in Israel. In lieu of this, they have worked deftly to play weak political hands, gaining victories mainly through two venues:
Battles in courts provided the movements with public funding for rabbis, access to the education system, some budget allocations (although these pale in comparison to what the Orthodox are granted) and more.
- Support from their American counterparts provides the other pillar for Israel’s Reform and Conservative movements. While not possessing much local power, in the U.S. Reform and Conservative Jews comprise a full half of the six million strong community and are a source of significant activity, philanthropy and pro-Israel political influence.11
- Worldwide, there are an estimated four million Reform and Conservative Jews and probably more who do not belong to a community but would attend such synagogues as a fallback option. 12, 13
But things are changing with these two levers of influence. And the decision by the PM to cave in to the ultra-Orthodox demands might be a hint of things to come.
The current government under Likud’s Netanyahu and with The Jewish Home’s Ayelet Shaked as Justice Minister, has made it its mission to restrain and weaken the High Court’s ability to influence government policy. This is not necessarily a move aimed at changing the relations between religion and state but rather the result of the belief in some government circles that the High Court – beginning in the 1990s – asserts its authority in ways that a) usurps the electorate’s role in making policy, and b) erodes Israel’s Jewishness and prioritizes individual rights at the expense of the collective Jewish good. The coalition is diligently working to alter the course of the Court and has received the support of its voters as it moves in this direction.
In addition, there seems to be a decline in the collective power of the U.S. Jewish community to influence Israeli decision-making. Once unified around larger organizations, this community has become more diffused in recent years. Politically, the once close-to-monolithic major groups have to compete with foundations and organizations who have their own, sometimes-contradictory agendas. Moreover, due to Israel’s much grown economy the U.S. community has also become less influential in its ability to wield power through massive philanthropy. Add to these facts the rising numbers of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews in the U.S. who will less questioningly support Israel while non-Orthodox Judaism seems, at least from the perspective of many Israelis, to be on the decline (low birthrates, intermarriage, etc.) and you have a weakening of the second arrow in the non-Orthodox movements’ quiver. Moreover, in the eyes of many Israelis, when the U.S. Jewish community does come together to influence Israeli policy, it at times does so in ways that contradict Israel’s interests, at least as defined by the supporters of the current government. There is even some sentiment within the current government that Evangelicals and non-Jewish conservatives are today, perhaps a greater source of support for Israel and especially this government’s policies, than is mainstream Jewish America. 14
That is not to say that these two forms of leverage are now irrelevant, and far from it. The courts are still able to wield significant effect (in fact, both the Kotel decision and the proposed conversion law came in response to court procedures). Similarly, the uproar from the mainstream U.S. Jewish community was clearly felt in Israel. The degree to which the government is taking this issue seriously shows it is not dismissive of the U.S. Jewish community, even if it preferred to acquiesce to the ultra-Orthodox this time around.
Israeli politics are fickle and so non-Orthodox movements still have many paths for achieving their goals. However, recent developments should make it clear that there is no substitute for political power – plain and simple. The Reform and Conservative movements are, in fact, already working to lay the grassroots foundations for having a more Jewishly diverse society, on the community level where they conduct lifecycle events for thousands of Israelis each year, and in the school systems. If they can mobilize anywhere near that 12 percent (or even 5 percent) of Israeli Jews to support their agenda actively and not just offer tacit support – or to mobilize secular Jews to join forces against the ultra-Orthodox control over certain areas of Israeli life – things might look much different down the road. The recent tumult has led to an uptick in support from across the political spectrum in Israel, such as the opposition Yesh Atid party putting forward a bill that would turn the Kotel agreement into law.15 This development could be used to increase the visibility and political clout of these movements and their demands.
Yet the current political power map leads one to conclude that the Reform and Conservative movements still have a lot of political power building to do – which ought to focus on creating “facts on the ground” rather than achieving symbolic victories. This is not say that the symbolic aspects are not important. Indeed, it is incumbent upon Israel to officially make room at the table for the non-Orthodox movements, despite their small numbers. Still, in the case of the Kotel this could necessitate a slight change of course. Plans are in place to physically upgrade the Robinson’s Arch platform. And a subsequent effort could aim to turn this area into a magnet for both world Jewry and Jewish Israelis. Paradoxically, the movements could realistically use the recent crisis as an opportunity for increased government funding and support on a range of practical (though perhaps not symbolic) matters – as the government will likely seek non-controversial and practical measures to ameliorate Diaspora anger.
As for American and world Jewish groups, this could be an opportunity for them to demonstrate their commitment to the growth of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel. Rather than pull philanthropy from Israel, as some have threatened, they could repurpose it as a tool for advancing and growing the Reform and Conservative presence. The movements currently have a yearly budget of around $5-7 million each (around 10 – 20 percent of that from government funding) – a paltry sum compared to the largesse enjoyed by the ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox groups, estimated at around $1 billion each year if not more.16 Were these sums to be even doubled and invested in outreach and infrastructure, including expanding synagogues and community centers (which have doubled in recent years), high quality schools and kindergartens (which the movements already run with great success), summer camps and more, they could have a real effect in winning over sympathetic Israelis to their cause. The domestic debate has yet to be decided if pluralistic Judaism is less prevalent in Israel because enough Israelis just aren’t that interested, or because the movements can’t compete with respect to resources. This could help settle the matter.
As for the government, it is a political reality that short-term political survival often trumps long-term ideological moves. Still, the government ought (and seems) to recognize that the insult felt by a vast majority of Diaspora Jews is real and cuts deep. It will take serious damage control and no small degree of a political balancing act to mollify Israel’s Jewish friends in the U.S. and elsewhere abroad and by extension the movements in Israel. Among liberal American Jews, there are signs that support for Israel is already weakening, and these recent government actions could very well be the proverbial backbreaking straw.
The six-month freeze announced by the Prime Minister’s office on June 30, meant to create a space for a compromise “arrangement” on both the Kotel and conversion issue, and the more recent appointment (August 16, 2017) of a former senior cabinet minister to review Israel’s conversion policy, were positive moves and must be fully utilized. 17
Additional thoughts: Judaism in Israel
The unescapable irony of all this is that as the ultra-Orthodox and the institution of the Israeli Rabbinate which they control have become increasingly forceful in maintaining and expanding their monopoly over Jewish practice, a growing number of Israelis become more distanced than ever from “that” Judaism and alienated from, and resentful of, the Rabbinate. Israeli Jews are more interested in Judaism than ever, just not under the auspices of the Rabbinate.18 19 As an illustration, a recent survey shows that 80 percent of Israeli Jews believe that the Rabbinate’s control over marriage and divorce “increases the number of Israelis who choose to wed … abroad”, and 56 percent feel that the “amount and content of religious legislation…is distancing Israeli citizens from Judaism”, including 74 percent of secular Jews. 20
In lieu of civil marriages (which do not exist in Israel), Israelis by the thousands have been flying overseas to marry in ceremonies of their choosing (but, still, cannot avoid the Rabbinate in the event of divorce). Alongside this phenomenon, there is a growing trend of couples conducting unofficial ceremonies in Israel and registering as a common-law union, thereby totally skirting the Rabbinate. Today, 6 percent of Israeli couples are not officially married, and the past year has seen more than 1300 such unofficial wedding ceremonies (as compared to roughly 40,000 official Jewish marriages each year).21 Of note is that the majority of these alternative ceremonies were Jewish ceremonies, be they Reform, Conservative, non-denominational or liberal Orthodox. Relatedly, Tzohar, the modern-Orthodox organization that seeks to reform the Rabbinate from within the system, weds a full 10 percent of Jewish couples in Israel (while on matters of conversion, Tzohar is acting in a more subversive manner to challenge the institution, such as through its “giyur k’halacha” conversion courts 22).23
Additional research hints that attitudes toward Orthodoxy itself are also changing. Just to flesh this point out, JPPI’s 2017 Pluralism in Israel Survey found that over half of Israeli Jews would prefer to attend synagogues with mixed-gender seating (including 52 percent of liberal Orthodox) rather than traditional gender-segregated seating Orthodox synagogues. As the ultra-Orthodox and the Rabbinate fend off alternatives to their version of Judaism, a growing number of Israelis, including the more liberal Orthodox, are gradually creating an alternative world of Jewish institutions from marriage and conversion to kosher certification. It is hard to say if Israeli society has reached a tipping point on this matter, but it is not difficult to imagine the day when the Rabbinate is largely obsolete for a sizeable segment of Israel’s population.
Additional thoughts: Israel-Diaspora relations
The latest crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations serves as a strong reminder of just how important, and fragile, “Jewish unity” is. Israeli and Diaspora leaders must engage in a serious and earnest dialogue about what it means for Israel to be a “homeland for all Jews” on a real and practical level, and to what extent the Israeli government should consider Diaspora perspectives in domestic decision-making, especially when there are implications for Diaspora Jewry. This discussion should happen in Israel, in the Diaspora, and between Israel and the Diaspora. It will not be a simple one.
Thus, all sides would be advised to proceed with caution. Israel needs American and Diaspora Jewry on its side, as they are both cultural partners and a strategic assets. Conversely, American and Diaspora Jews are recognizing more and more how much they still need Israel, despite its complexities and polarizing nature, as a point of connection to Jewish identity; the success of Birthright is a prime example of this.
The Israeli government, Israeli society including the Reform and Conservative movements and the ultra-Orthodox, and Diaspora Jewry must conduct these discussions soon and with an abundance of sensitivity. All factions will need to make important choices and compromises in order to maintain Jewish consensus around what it means for Israel to be both Jewish and Democratic, and what it means for Israel to be a home (even if away from home) for all Jews.
- Maltz, Judy. “Israeli Government Approves New Egalitarian Prayer Space at Western Wall”. Haaretz. Jan 31, 2016. http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-1.700530
- The ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, who voted against the plan, initially did not seek to actively prevent its implementation.
- The Kotel administration forbids bringing in Torah scrolls from outside the compound, so as to prevent Women of the Wall from reading Torah publically. In response, the courts ordered that the women cannot be searched for scrolls, leaving the situation ambiguous for the time being.
- As reported by the movements themselves.
- Pew Survey of Israel, 2016. “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society”. http://www.pewforum.org/2016/03/08/israels-religiously-divided-society/
- Pew Israel study, 2016.
- Hiddush. The 2016 Israel Religion and State Index. http://www.hiddush.org/article-16967-0-The_2016_Israel_Religion__State_Index.aspx
- Hermann, Tamar and Cohen, Chanan. “Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel: A Profile and Attitudes”. The Israel Democracy Institute. June 30, 2013. https://en.idi.org.il/articles/6869
- Hoffman, Gil. “Majority of Jewish Israelis want Egalitarian Prayer Site at Kotel.” The Jerusalem Post. September 16, 2016. http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Majority-of-Jewish-Israelis-want-egalitarian-prayer-site-at-Kotel-467815
- Hiddush. “ 71% Israeli Jews attach importance to marriage & divorce freedom. 11% attach importance to the battle over the Western Wall plaza area.” December 2016. http://hiddush.org/article-16875-0-71_Israeli_Jews_attach_importance_to_marriage__divorce_freedom.aspx
- According to the 2013 Pew Survey, the U.S. Jewish community is 35% Reform, 30% non-denominational, 18% Conservative, 10% Orthodox and 6% other.
- Wolff, Laurence. “The Reform Movement in Israel: Past, Present and Future.” Institute for Israel Studies, University of Maryland. January 8, 2015. http://www.israelstudies.umd.edu/Larry%20Wolff%20Research%20Paper%20-%20January%202015.pdf
- Cohen, Steven M. “Conservative Jewry’s numbers plummeting, but core engagement steady.” JTA. November 10, 2015. http://www.jta.org/2015/11/10/news-opinion/united-states/op-ed-for-conservative-jews-smaller-numbers-but-steady-engagement
- Shimoni-Stoil, Rebecca. “Netanyahu: Evangelical Christians are Israel’s best friends”. Times of Israel. July 18, 2017. http://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-evangelical-christians-are-israels-best-friends/
- Attali, Amihai. “Yesh Atid tries to pass Western Wall Plan into Law.” YNet News. June 28, 2017. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4981918,00.html
- As reported by the movements themselves.
- Times of Israel. “Netanyahu taps ex-justice minister to review conversion policy.” Times of Israel. August 16, 2017. http://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-taps-ex-justice-minister-to-review-conversion-policy/
- Sharon, Jeremy. “Poll shows high religious sentiment among religiously traditional and secular Israelis.” Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah. August 10, 2016. https://toravoda.org.il/en/poll-shows-high-religious-sentiment-among-religiously-traditional-secular-israelis/
- Keissar-Sugarmen, Ayala. “A Portrait of Israeli Jews: Beliefs, Observance, and Values of Israeli Jews, 2009”. The Israel Democracy Institute. https://en.idi.org.il/media/5439/guttmanavichaireport2012_engfinal.pdf
- Sharon, Jeremy. “Poll shows high religious sentiment among religiously traditional and secular Israelis.” Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah. August 10, 2016. https://toravoda.org.il/en/poll-shows-high-religious-sentiment-among-religiously-traditional-secular-israelis/ and http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Poll-shows-high-religious-sentiment-among-religiously-traditional-and-secular-Israelis-463722
- Marriage statistics are from the Central Bureau of Statistics and original JPPI research.
- Which are strictly Orthodox but operate outside of the official conversion system.
- Tzohar marriage statistics are from Tzohar.