Jessica Fishman’s story will break your heart. She is a young Jewish woman from Minnesota whose father was President of their Conservative synagogue and mother was President of Hadassah. Jessica was a Jewish day school student and attended services every Shabbat. As a teen she traveled to Israel, fell in love with the country and made aliyah at the age of 22. Though beyond the age of military service, she volunteered in the Israeli army for two years. She met a young man, fell in love and was engaged to be married. Then her troubles began.
Jessica’s fiancé and his family wanted her to convert to Judaism with an Orthodox rabbi because her mother had converted to Judaism with a Conservative Rabbi. They worried that Jessica’s future children would not be considered Jewish by the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate and could never marry here.
Jessica refused to undergo conversion, saying; “This so upset me that these rabbis would define my identity for me.”
The tension was too much, and she and her boyfriend ended their engagement.
Jessica felt abandoned and disillusioned despite all she had given of herself to the state of Israel. After living here for seven years, she returned to Minnesota and explained, “I no longer feel that this is my home. I feel unwanted, not accepted,…it’s as if they spit in my face.”
Jessica’s story is only one recent example of the destructive impact the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate is having on Israeli society. The unholy alliance between religion and state has emboldened the ultra-Orthodox to impose themselves in more and more areas of Israeli life including the demand that certain bus lines running through Orthodox neighborhoods have separate seating for men and women with women seated in rear of the bus, nearly complete control of the Western Wall plaza by the Chief Rabbi of the Kotel, and incidents such as that which occurred last December in Beit Shemesh when Chareidi Orthodox thugs spit on an Orthodox 8 year-old little girl who was not dressed modestly enough for their taste.
Not unrelated were the massive protests last summer when hundreds of thousands of Israelis protested the squeezing of the middle class in cities all around the state. The protesters complained about not being able to make ends meet, all the while Orthodox religious institutions serving only 25% of the population who don’t work, don’t pay taxes and don’t serve in the military are being massively subsidized by the government.
In response to the Israeli protests, Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed a commission led by Professor Manuel Trajtenberg, the chair of the Higher Education Planning and Budget Committee in the Knesset, to examine and propose solutions to Israel’s economic problems. Among other things, the commission made recommendations to integrate ultra-Orthodox men into the work force, enforce core curriculum in Orthodox religious schools and to limit funding for yeshivas. (See here for details.)
It came as no surprise that the commission’s recommendations met with fierce opposition by the ultra-Orthodox religious parties. However, in a national survey only 22% of the country opposed the recommendations. 90% of secular Jews supported it as did even 67% of the religious population, as well as 75% of Likud and virtually 100% of Labor and Kadima supporters.
Why are these recommendations so important? First, they aim to ease the financial burden of Israel’s constricted middle class while also leveling the playing field for all members of Israeli society, including the ultra-Orthodox; and second, they would break the stranglehold of the ultra-Orthodox religious parties over many parts of Israeli life. However, because of the threat of the ultra-Orthodox religious parties to leave the government coalition, these recommendations have been frozen.
For more information on this danger to Israel’s civil society no less significant than the threat from without by Israel’s enemies, I recommend spending spend time looking at the web-site of Hiddush, an organization led by Rabbi Uri Regev that is committed to the separation of church and state.