When religion and politics mix
Op-ed: Netanyahu prefers to thwart conversion reform because his natural partners, the haredim, are much more important than the common citizen.
The State of Israel is a state which has yet to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. On the one hand, its leaders believe that the country is actually part of the United States – an American aircraft carrier sailing along the shores of the Middle East. They would rather reach agreements with Canada and with Mexico than with the Palestinians, for example.
And it’s not just about foreign relations. The ship – an American villa in the Middle East – is carrying not only American tools and weapons, but also American values. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees himself as a big expert on these values. He is such an expert that he can afford to rebuke the fellows on the beach for forgetting the essence of American values. An important American value, for example, is the Jewish right to settle wherever the Yesha Council decides.
On the other hand, Israel integrates very well into the explosive mixture of religion and politics which characterizes the region. In the home port, for example, there is a strict separation between the church and the state. For the Americans, it would be unimaginable that the secular state would decide who has “properly converted to Christianity,” as the state deals with things shared by all its citizens while the different religions each deal with their own issues according to worldviews and values which have nothing to do with the public domain.
In the State of Israel, on the other hand, the secular authorities are vigorously involved in the issue of halachic conversion.
Take the Israel Defense Forces, for example. An allegedly neutral body which should not be taking a stand on religious affairs. What would we think about the US Army if it encouraged non-Christian soldiers to be baptized and provided them with suitable systems? We would probably be shocked.
Not in Israel. The IDF encourages soldiers to convert to Judaism – and it’s not all talk, but also action. The training for conversion in the IDF falls under the responsibility of the Education Corps and is operated by the Judaism Studies Institute through its teachers and according to programs adapted to the IDF, which were approved by the Chief Military Rabbinate. This system was initiated by the chief education officer at the time, Major-General (res.) Elazar Stern.
This odd situation – too odd for an American, because in the Middle East, which we are allegedly turning our back on, there is no separation between religion and state – is part of a wider picture in which the state leaves critical matters concerning its citizens, like the definition of a couple’s relationship, in the hands of the religious establishment.
The state, which defines itself as the Jewish nation state, has also failed to create its own definitions for determining a Jewish identity and is completely dependent on the rulings of halachic authorities, allegedly on its behalf, who basically serve as the yes men of the extreme rightists in their community – the haredi rabbis. Instead of cutting off this faulty connection between the civil establishment and the religious establishment, they are trying to lubricate it so that it will lead to less jock itches.
The recent lubrication attempt is being carried out by Elazar Stern, who in the meantime has become a Knesset member on behalf of Hatnua party. Stern’s proposed law for a conversion reform weakens the Chief Rabbinate, which is in the hands of the haredim, and allows city rabbis to establish their own conversion courts. More importantly, it opens the registration districts for conversion, so that those seeking to convert would not be held hostage by a certain rabbi, but would be able to find the most suitable converter. It’s not good, but it’s certainly not as bad as the current situation.
Our very American prime minister is extremely eager to thwart this attempt. The suggested reform is a thorn in the side of Benjamin Netanyahu’s “natural” partners, the haredim. It’s better to thwart it, as the natural partners are much more important than the common citizen who, alas, isn’t a natural partner in Bibi’s future coalition.
Hatnua member are declaring that the law may pass despite Bibi’s objection. It’s possible. But this law, even if it does pass, is a secular fig leaf covering up the haredi shame. The State of Israel must set civilian criteria for recognizing affiliation with the Jewish people and leave the religious quips to the religious