Imagine this: American Christian denominations are battling tooth and nail over defining who is a Christian, including whether conversion performed by one may be recognized by the other. Imagine a country in which Southern Baptists refuse to marry Roman Catholics, and Unitarians refuse to marry Episcopalians. All because they refuse to recognize the other denominations as Christian at all. They believe that such marriages render those wed as sinners, and their offspring as bastards. This, in turn renders such children unable to marry inside their parents’ denomination. Nor will a partner from another denomination accept them as Christian or legitimate.
That’s pretty much the situation in Israel. Though the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative are each denominations of Judaism, the Orthodox believe they are the only true Jews. In fact, they consider the non-Orthodox to be dogs as you can in the campaign video produced by the United Torah Judaism Party.
They will not marry any but fellow Orthodox (unless their partners become Orthodox). That would not ordinarily be such a problem except that via a political bargain struck at the founding of the state, between Orthodox rabbis and David Ben Gurion, they were bestowed a monopoly–not only over major elements of the social contract including birth, death, marriage and divorce–but over religion itself. Orthodox Jews became the only state-recognized religion (though later Reform and Conservative rabbis were given official recognition) for Israeli Jews.
The reason there will never be gay marriage in Israel is that Orthodox rabbis control the marriage protocol. They consider homosexuality an abomination, hence no LGBTQ Israeli will ever be able to marry there. When you seek to marry you must receive approval of the Orthodox rabbinate. If you are not Orthodox, even if you can trace your Jewish lineage back generations, your marriage may not be recognized. If, God forbid, you are Jewish, but cannot satisfactorily prove Jewish lineage (say, you’re from the former Soviet Union, where religious practice was suppressed for decades), you’re simply out of luck.
The Supreme Court determined that it must intervene in this dispute and put an end to the Orthodox stranglehold on one portion of this monopoly: conversion. Not only do Orthodox rabbis not recognize conversions performed by Reform or Conservative rabbis, they often won’t recognize ones performed by their fellow Orthodox rabbis. Even within Orthodox Judaism there are sects and various levels of strict adherence to halacha (religious law). Some believe even other Orthodox Jews aren’t proper Jews.
Once more unto the breach stepped the Court, seeking both to restrain the Orthodox and knit up the ravelled sleeve of care of Israeli Jews beset by confusion and division. The justices may have been motivated by a sincere urge to resolve conflicts and create some uniform standard that was fair to all Israeli Jews; but the result has been that the State’s highest secular court has interceded in purely religious matters. This is something that would be inconceivable in any other western nation. Even those like Britain, which nominally have a state religion, wouldn’t dream of a civil court telling a religious group how to define its members, including who may perform conversions permitting adherents to join it.
It is outrageous that Israelis may not have civil marriage. It is outrageous that Orthodox rabbis control divorce proceedings and determine when and how a couple may end their marriage. This offers Orthodox Judaism enormous control over key elements of social life. In addition, It permits religious figures to found political parties whose main purpose is to advance the social and religious interests of their adherents. Imagine if two of the main parties in the UK were not Labour or Tory, but Anglican and Catholic. Imagine if the main parties in the US were not Democrat or Republican, but Roman Catholic and Protestant. The very idea is inconceivable.
But not in Israel, which is beset by a peculiar form of delusion. It believes that it is the state of “the Jews” (forget Palestinians). And not just the state of Israeli Jews, but of all Jews throughout the world. And it believes that the nature of this Jewish state should be controlled in critical ways by Orthodox Jews. Many of the latter do not even believe in western secular democracy. Some in fact, would rather transform Israel into a religious monarchy, restoring Davidic rule. Accompanying this, would likely be a religious holy war with Muslims in which the Haram al Sharif would be destroyed and replaced with the Third Temple.
Perhaps you can see where I’m going. Instead of resolving an inter-denominational religious conflict, the Court’s ruling proved the bankruptcy of the idea that Israel may be both a Jewish and democratic state. Democracy requires freedom and openness. It requires equality among all citizens regardless of religion. It requires equality of the sexes. All these are anathema to religion as defined by Israeli Orthodox Judaism. Hence, the contradiction of the State stepping into a religious fight to determine winners and losers.
Further, many of Israel’s political leaders despite the Court itself, not to mention this particular ruling. They will undoubtedly be inspired to concoct some new law which will restore full power to the Orthodox. Then, you will observe the so-called democratic elected officials of the State returning power to the Orthodox gray-beards. This will only confirm that Israel is not a democracy, but rather a theocracy–or at best an ethnocracy.
Diaspora Jews, chief among them liberal Zionists, must relinquish their illusion that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. They must face up to the fact that it is an apartheid state. They must fully and clearly accept what Israel is and what it has become. And they must announce their separation from Israel as it is. There must be a divorce–one not presided over by Orthodox rabbis. Perhaps it won’t be a permanent divorce. Perhaps a long-term separation. But the only way to mend the split is for Israel to renounce the supremacy of religion in the state itself. When it does that and becomes a democratic secular state (which respects religion but doesn’t worship it), then the two partners may be reunited.