Advancing religious freedom and dismantling the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate's monopoly
Israel's Declaration of Independence includes an impressive commitment to freedom of religion, but the implementation of this right in Israel falls far short of the usual standards in democratic states. The (ultra-) Orthodox religious hegemony extends to nearly all spheres of religious practice and civic life in Israel, leaving personal status matters such as marriage, divorce, burial, and conversion in the exclusive realm of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate. As a result, religious coercion has become an inseparable part of life for most Israeli citizens, and the level of discrimination that exists against progressive Jewish movements would be unimaginable in any other democratic country.
At IRAC, we aim to challenge Israel's monopolistic religious structure and the religious stranglehold of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Judaism forced on Israelis today.
Equal Access to the Western Wall for all Jews
People of all faiths are welcome to approach and pray at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, in sections that are separated by gender. Not only are the sections not equal size, but there is a prohibition on mixed gender prayer services on the large plaza behind the wall, Torah scrolls are not allowed to be carried in from off-site, and women and mixed groups are not allowed use of Torah scrolls on-site. Authorities have designated a significantly smaller temporary platform for non-Orthodox Jewish prayers in an area adjacent to the Western Wall and south of the Kotel plaza, in the active archaeological site of Robinson’s Arch. The egalitarian prayer space, which is used by the Conservative and Reform movements for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and other religious services, is not visible or easily accessible from the main Western Wall plaza.
We made huge progress on this issue with the landmark decision on January 31, 2016 to create a permanent and official, fully-egalitarian space at the Kotel. Since the decision, there has been an uproar from ultra-Orthodox government officials and anti-Reform posters have been plastered all over the city of Jerusalem. In September, there was a hearing in front of the Supreme Court on this issue in which the government was questioned for their lack of implementation of the Kotel deal. With their encouragement, we file an amended petition with a focus on the government's lack of implementation of the decision. In April 2017, the Supreme Court ordered the state to submit a full response to our petition filed in September 2016 by June 25, 2017.
Instead, on June 25, the government voted to “freeze” the Kotel agreement, in essence cancelling an agreement which was four years in the making which had been agreed upon by the government, the Reform and Conservative movements and Women of the Wall that would create an egalitarian prayer plaza at Robinson’s Arch. The state finally submitted its response to our petition on July 20, stating that renovation of Robinson’s Arch will take place, but no other part of the agreement would be honored. There was a Supreme Court hearing in which Chief Justice Naor questioned the state’s decision to freeze the agreement, encouraging them to reconsider the freeze. The state, however, did not change its position. We filed a response, claiming the court should force the government to implement the Kotel agreement. Another hearing was held in January 2018, the longest court hearing in our history, during which the judges questioned the behaviors of the State and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. They also gave the State three months to provide further information, and concrete workplans for the renovation of the Robinson’s Arch area.
In the meantime, we continue to protest the government’s decision to freeze the agreement and have held protest marches carrying Torah scrolls into the Kotel area. The most recent torah march in November 2017 was met with violence against Anat Hoffman, IRAC’s executive director, and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ.
Public Transportation on Shabbat
There is currently very limited public transportation on Shabbat throughout Israel, and in many places there is none at all. This makes it so a large percentage of the Israeli population is stuck at home or forced to pay exorbitant amounts of money to get places over the weekends. Under current Israeli law, public transportation will not run in most locations from the beginning of Shabbat on Friday afternoon through the end of Shabbat on Saturday night.
We believe that it is vital to provide transportation to the public on Shabbat and it is a matter of social justice because the lack of public transportation impacts the weakest links in our society: the elderly, the impoverished, those who can’t drive, those with disabilities, and families that cannot afford a car. In many cases, the use of public transportation is the only means for people with disabilities or medical conditions to pursue their basic freedoms to participate in society, to pursue their rights to education, a job, and to vote. Israeli law mandates that public transportation is accommodating to those with who are handicapped, but this lifeline to be a part of society is taken away from them on Shabbat.
We filed a petition for the implementation of public transportation on Shabbat at the beginning of June 2016. The petition was heard in September 2017. The court ordered us to withdraw the petition, claiming we should ask a public transportation company to ask the Ministry of Transportation for a license to operate on Shabbat. Only after the request is refused should we go back to the Supreme court.
Alternative Kashrut Certification
The Chief Rabbinate of Israel currently has a monopoly over kashrut certification for restaurants and bars around Israel. We have been working to create an alternative kashrut certification outside of the bounds of the Rabbinate, but lost our Supreme Court case. In October 2016, the President of the Supreme Court announced that there will be another hearing on this topic - a very rare occurrence. The hearing took place in February 2017, and a decision was given in September 2017 which reversed the former decision and ruled that while restaurants who do not have certification from the Chief Rabbinate may not call themselves Kosher, they may present the rules according to which the food is prepared and who supervises the restaurant. Since, the Tzohar rabbinic authority decided to open a kashrut certification authority in direct competition to the Chief Rabbinate. This is hopefully the first of many alternative kashrut certification authorities, and the first crack in the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over religion and personal status in Israel.
The Israeli Ministry of Welfare adheres to a 1981 regulation that the adoption of children is only to be allowed by "Ish v'Isha (man and woman) together". Their interpretation of this regulation means that unmarried couples and single-sex couples are automatically rejected. Take for example, Keren and Jonathan, a young couple from Beer Sheva who, after living together for six years and being unable to conceive, wanted to adopt a child. However, in protest against the Orthodox monopoly on marriage and divorce in Israel, Keren and Jonathan never married. As a result, they could not even apply for adoption. In reality, couples that are rejected for such a reason may be offered children for whom no adoptive parents could be found because of the child's age, background, or special needs. The Ministry of Welfare has no problem assigning "less desirable" children to "less desirable" parents. Together with the Israeli Gay Father's Association, in April 2016 we filed a petition to the Supreme Court to force the Ministry of Welfare to provide common law partners and same-sex couples with equal access to parenthood through adoption. Hearings were held in September 2016 and February 2017. The state responded to our petition in July, stating they will no longer discriminate against common-law couples, but plan to continue to discriminate against same-sex couples. After massive protest, the state asked to postpone the hearing scheduled for July so they could "reconsider" - change - their position. On August 29, 2017, the state announced that they did in fact change their position and will support same-sex adoption. The petition was heard on September 17, 2017, but the government decided to comply to our demands voluntarily. They now have until June 2018 to use the legislative process to change the laws regarding adoption for same-sex couples giving them the same rights as other couples in Israel. They now have until June 2018 to use the legislative process to change the laws regarding adoption for same-sex couples giving them the same rights as other couples in Israel.