Soul-Searching After a Rabbi Was Detained in Israel
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Almost a decade ago, shortly before their wedding, my daughter and her fiancé decided that the ceremony would not be performed by a rabbi associated with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. Both religiously observant, they found the Chief Rabbinate’s attitude to women and to non-Orthodox streams of Judaism reprehensible; they were determined to use the occasion of their wedding, at which numerous politically and socially prominent Israelis would be present, to make that point.
They asked me to perform the wedding. As a Conservative rabbi ordained in the U.S. (and thus not recognized by the Israeli Rabbinate), I technically violated Israel’s 1953 Marriage and Divorce Law. This can be punished with a two-year prison sentence. We made the occasional quip about my getting arrested for performing my own daughter’s wedding, but we were never worried. Many rabbis had done this before, and none had ever been arrested.
The couple never registered their marriage with any Israeli authorities -- and are thus legally in a common-law marriage, even though their marriage was performed precisely according to Jewish law. They never looked back.
A few days ago, at 5:30 in the morning, Israeli police pounded on the door of the Haifa home of Rabbi Dubi Haiyun, brought him to the police station and interrogated him – all because he did precisely what I had done: He performed a wedding strictly according to the mandates of Jewish law while purposely ignoring the Chief Rabbinate. Reaction across Israel, even from leading Orthodox authorities, has been critical in the extreme. Many have echoed what Rabbi Haiyun posted on his Facebook page shortly after the police banged on his door: “Iran is already here!!!”
Israel’s attorney general (who also happens to be an Orthodox Jew) ordered the police to immediately release Haiyun and to cease their investigation. From a legal standpoint, the matter may well be over. Troubles for the rabbinate might just be beginning.
Some scholars claim that 25 percent of Israeli couples are already getting married outside the rabbinate’s purview. This detention, in which the state’s police were used as a harassment tool by an increasingly backward religious authority many Israelis despise, may push more couples to do so.
It will undoubtedly also increase the calls for dismantling the Chief Rabbinate. That will not happen any time soon, but as it both becomes ever more out of touch with Israelis and modernity and now has decided to flex its muscles, the Rabbinate may be digging its own grave.
Not surprisingly, American Jews, who are overwhelmingly non-Orthodox, were also outraged by the incident. And they, like many Israelis, saw other cause for concern in recent headlines: Israel just passed the controversial Jewish Nation-State bill, which establishes in a Basic Law (which has Constitutional-like status) what has long been obvious from Israel’s Declaration of Independence, National Anthem and another Basic Law that defines Israel as “Jewish and democratic” – that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Some of the opposition to the law, especially from abroad, comes from those for whom Israel’s self-definition not as a liberal democracy but as an ethnic democracy (which places one group – in this case, the Jewish people – at the core of the country’s purpose) is troublesome. But no one has ever hidden that that has always been Israel’s raison d'être. Indeed, the Balfour Declaration, issued by the British in 1917, spoke of the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people.” In many ways, then, the new law codifies what has long been both obvious and the status quo.
The question is why the government was so intent on passing this law now. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the new law as “a pivotal moment in the annals of Zionism and the State of Israel” – a claim so patently ludicrous that hardly anyone took it seriously. The more likely explanation is that Netanyahu, the consummate political chess-player, sought to assuage his right flank as elections seem increasingly likely (Netanyahu will almost certainly win decisively).
The right takes deep satisfaction in some measures of the law, like downgrading the Arabic language from an official language of the state to one with “special” standing. The law’s endorsement of “Jewish settlement” as a “national value” is a toned-down version of an original clause that would have officially sanctioned Jewish-only communities – a clause too controversial to pass even with Netanyahu’s support. And the law’s assertion that “the state will act in the Diaspora to maintain the connection between the state and the Jewish people” subtly notes that Israel will act that way only outside the state. For Orthodox religious parties, this was a way of making clear that they would not countenance the advance of religious pluralism – which is deeply important to Diaspora Jews – inside the Jewish State.
Even some of Netanyahu’s allies believe the bill was gratuitous. Moshe Arens, a former Defense Minister and a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, argued that the slap in the face of Israeli Arabs would only strengthen radicals among them, who have long sought to prevent Arabs from seeing themselves as part of Israeli society. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, also from Likud, worried that a previous version of the bill, since modified, could “harm the Jewish people, Jews throughout the world and the State of Israel.”
Netanyahu seems less and less concerned with the opinions and support of American Jews. As for the slap at Israeli Arabs and the concerns of the Israeli left, what Netanyahu thinks about that is obvious from his Trump-like unabashed courting of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Diaspora Jews, much to their frustration, have virtually no impact on Israel’s policies. If anything, the newly passed Jewish Nation-State law essentially codifies that fact. What remains to be seen is whether rank-and-file Israelis will begin to worry that Israel is following in the path of numerous European countries that, like the U.S., are in the grips of regimes with hard-right inclinations. Until a few days ago, there was little reason to believe that Israelis were ready to be roused. How ironic it would be if the detaining of a Conservative rabbi sparked the conversation that Israelis desperately need to have. The time is growing near when the Israeli people will have to decide what kind of country they seek to build.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
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