The Unorthodox Solution: Embracing Pluralism and Reason in Israeli Society

When dozens of Israeli ultra-Orthodox rabbis signed a formal edict prohibiting Jews from renting or selling real estate to non-Jews, the ensuing uproar was reassuring to those of us working for a democratic, pluralist Israel.

Within days, nearly 1,000 rabbis worldwide signed onto a letter originated by my organization, the New Israel Fund, condemning the ruling and calling on rabbis in Israel to take a forceful public stand against it. Remarkably, the signatories included rabbis from across the religious spectrum, including many who may disagree with other aspects of NIF's progressive agenda.

Prime Minister Netanyahu himself criticized the edict, as did the leadership of Israel's Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. Additionally, since several of the offending rabbis are actually on the government payroll as official rabbis in their municipalities, the Israeli Attorney General is looking into the possibility of suspending them for incitement -- a crime in Israel since the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin.

These swift and clear denunciations are critical reassertions of Israel's core commitment to democracy and equal rights for all its citizens. And yet, there are disturbing counter-trends afoot and an essential injustice embedded in the nature of Israel's religion-state relationship.

A recent poll showed more than half of Jewish Israelis support the discriminatory edict, and not all are followers of Israel's harsh ultra-Orthodox establishment. A right-wing group is attempting to put teeth in the ruling by investigating Jewish Israelis who do rent or sell to Arabs and publicizing their names for public ostracism. On the legislative front, a bill making its way through the Knesset would further legitimize discrimination by allowing towns and villages to consider "social suitability" in prospective residents, providing legal means to exclude immigrants, gay couples and other marginalized groups as well as Israeli Arab citizens.

Those who would attempt to defend these actions point out that Israel has faced an existential threat since its founding, and that Arab-Israeli citizens, the primary target of state-sponsored exclusion, do not generally support Israel as a Jewish state. Analogies to Jim Crow and other discriminatory systems are thus overstated and flawed, goes this analysis. And despite the promise of Israel's Declaration of Independence, to establish a state that "ensures complete social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion," Israel does have the right to protect its identity as a Jewish homeland and to promote the cohesiveness of the Jewish people.

All this may be true. But to those of us who have been working for years on issues of religious pluralism and civil rights, the fact that bigots in Israel are now willing to say publicly what they once said privately is indicative of a threat to Israel far more worrisome than the imagined danger of real-estate transactions between neighbors.

That threat lies in the growing power of Israel's ultra-Orthodox establishment -- its marriage of convenience with right-wing ultra-nationalism and its enshrinement as the sole arbiter of Jewish peoplehood and Israeli identity. Americans who think of Israel as the "only democracy in the Middle East" might be surprised to discover that almost every personal life-cycle choice there is allotted to the religious sphere. There is no civil marriage, divorce or burial. The definition of who is a Jew, which is key to Israeli citizenship for new immigrants under the Law of Return, is firmly in the hands of the fundamentalist, ultra-Orthodox rabbinate.

It would be one thing if alternate interpretations of Judaism could contend fairly in the marketplace of ideas. But there is no level playing field. In Israel, there is only one official, state-sponsored, state-supported expression of Judaism, and it is not the Judaism of the majority of the world's Jews. Indeed, Israel's official Jewish authorities refuse to acknowledge non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism at all.

Israel must debate, re-examine and reform the relationship between religion and state. It must establish a civil sphere to provide every Israeli with freedom of religion and conscience. Citizenship and personal identity must be a matter of impartial legal procedure, no longer held hostage to the decrees of ultra-Orthodox authorities. All streams of Judaism -- and for that matter, Christianity and Islam -- must find welcome in a democratic Israel.

This prescription is not anti-Orthodox. The New Israel Fund proudly supports a number of Orthodox groups who bring moderating and pluralist voices to their own community. Many Jewish Israelis are observant or traditional in practice, and even the majority who are secular respect the history and traditions of Judaism. That will not change in a more pluralist framework. There is no contradiction between identifying Israel as the Jewish homeland, the traditional home and haven of the Jewish people, and at the same time insisting that legal theocracy and democracy are ultimately incompatible.

No Israeli rabbi should be silenced for voicing even contemptible opinions. Any Israeli is free to listen to his or her rabbi and follow that guidance -- unless that guidance amounts to incitement or contravenes the basic civil rights of others. When in the public debate on this issue one rabbi actually claimed that "racism is inherent in the Torah," the state-sponsored power granted to the ultra-Orthodox hierarchy makes that bigotry much more than just opinion. The confluence of religion and state allows ignorant ethnocentricity to attain the power of law.

We progressives have faith that reason, tolerance and inclusion can and will trump extremism, bigotry and the politics of division. But this cannot happen when the legal deck is stacked against this vision by an ultra-Orthodox establishment with the power of the state behind it. That is not liberal democracy. That is not the impartial rule of law. And in the most important sense, as we demand that Israel reflect the best of our ethical tradition, as well as our tragic history of exclusion and persecution, it is not Jewish, either.

Daniel Sokatch is CEO of the New Israel Fund.