Tuesday, December 13

Erosion of Religious Freedom and Dislike of Minorities

“Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East!” At least that is what the Israeli Government loves to emphasize at almost every opportunity in international forums. It has almost become a mantra. However, facts on the ground are eroding this mantra. Israel has the most right wing government in its history. The right wing has never been as strong in Israel as it is today.
Members of the Women of the Wall wear prayer
shawls as they pray at the Western Wall

We have witnessed some very disturbing statements coming from PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s mouthpiece, MK David Bitan, Coalition Chairman. His remarks were racist and cast aspersions on Israel’s Arab citizens. Bitan said the Arab Joint List in parliament doesn't "represent the Arabs; they represent Gaza, Qatar and other countries." He said he would "prefer" if Arabs didn't go to the polls to vote in elections. His boss, PM Netanyahu on Election Day 2015, also made racist remarks disparaging of Israel’s Arab citizens. Israeli Arab citizens have the right to vote in a secret ballot just as much as the Jewish majority. How long that will last before their parties are declared illegal by law remains to be seen. Anything is possible under the present Israel Government. They view Israeli citizens, who are left wing, even moderately left of center, as potential Fifth Column and ostracize them at almost every opportunity.

The latest bombshell is the curtailing of non-Orthodox Jewish worship at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem. The Shas Party has introduced a Bill forbidding Reform and Conservative women from putting on Tefillin and the Tallit at the Kotel. They can be arrested for six months as well as pay a heavy fine of 10 000 NIS. This is the first swipe at religious freedom for non-Orthodox streams in Judaism. It appears that the Kotel is the property of establishment Orthodox Jews only. Reform and Conservative Jews have no right to pray there at all.  

Non-Orthodox rabbis bring Torah scrolls into
Western Wall plaza to protest Israel's inaction.
The erosion of democracy affects all of us who are Israeli citizens and this reminds me of the famous German pastor, Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) quotation - “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out...” Perhaps within the Israeli “democratic context” it could read as follows:

First they came for the Israeli Arabs, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not an Israeli Arab.
Then they came for the left wing and I did not speak out—
Because I was not left wing.
Then they came for the Reform and Conservative Jews  and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Reform or Conservative Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
There is no doubt that a very disturbing trend is developing in Israel.  We are being forced into a corner from which it will not be easy to escape. The hegemony of the Orthodox (as represented by the extreme right wing, illegal settler-oriented Bayit Hayehudi [Jewish Home Party] and the ultra Orthodox Shas and Yahadut Hatorah [Torah Judaism] parties that are part of the ruling coalition). They are calling the tune on many religious issues including the government’s policies on matters concerning non-Orthodox streams in Judaism. The latter have no official recognition nor are they able to conduct wedding ceremonies recognized by the State of Israel. It is a paradox that the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism are not recognized and are much maligned by Israel’s Government under pressure from the religious parties in the coalition.
There does not seem to be any change in government policy regarding the non-Orthodox streams in Judaism despite the lobbying in the Knesset, including a petition to the High Court, to allow them to worship at a special section of the Western Wall. On January 31, 2016, the state signed a comprehensive compromise allowing for a permanent pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall in the area commonly called Robinson’s Arch, and also for the formation of a new management committee with representation from all streams of Judaism. As mentioned earlier in this article, the situation of freedom of worship for both sexes at the Western Wall has taken a turn for the worse.
While it is true that very few Israeli Jews are Conservative or Reform, most observant Jews identify with the Orthodox (including the ultra-Orthodox stream), which is Israel Establishment Judaism. Even Secular Jews say that the synagogue they attend once or twice a year on the High Holy Days is Orthodox. They remain indifferent in the fight for non-Orthodox streams in Judaism to gain recognition.
While there is no true separation between Orthodox Synagogue and State in Israel, Israel cannot claim that there is true religious freedom. The Orthodox streams are well represented in the Knesset, which means that those who represent Orthodox Judaism are political, manipulative and coercive. As in Islam, Orthodox Judaism is becoming more extreme in its observance and less tolerant of those, who do not hold their world view.

The only way to turn the tide against this Orthodox intolerance and dislike of non-Orthodox streams in Judaism as well as their rabbis' racism towards the non-Jewish minorities is to hit them where it hurts the most - their pockets! Donations to these intolerant and hateful Orthodox institutions and their political parties should be curtailed! These intolerant Orthodox Jewish institutions receive many donations from Diaspora Jews, as they view them as an insurance for maintaining Jewish identity and preventing assimilation.They are no credit towards maintaining Jewish identity! They are driving many Jews away from the fold. Their political parties in the Knesset hold the balance of power for the institution of a strict Halacha of intolerance. There should be a worldwide "mini-BDS (Boycott, Diversity and Sanctions)" against them, differentiating from BDS against Israel which I oppose very strongly.

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