Israel’s haredi Orthodox Chief Rabbinate has racked up a series of recent victories against those who want to expand the country’s religious freedoms. In the Jewish state, religious questions are also political, so Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s acquiescence to the haredi side in the debate gives the Rabbinate’s narrow, inflexible approach the state’s stamp of approval.
The latest skirmish is over what is known as the Mikvah Bill. Just approved by the Knesset, it requires that any immersion in a public ritual bath (funded by the government) be conducted in accordance with the Rabbinate’s rules, despite the fact that many of those rules — for example, the prohibition of state-funded ritual baths to be used for non-Orthodox conversions — have previously been struck down by the Supreme Court. This new bill applies as much to women who make a monthly visit to a mikvah as it does to someone converting to Judaism, and could infringe on the privacy of the person visiting the bath.
Last month in this space we criticized the Rabbinate’s exclusion of all but a few diaspora Orthodox rabbis as acceptable for performing conversions. The list of rabbis was secret and, to make matters more confusing, just whose conversions were deemed valid seemed to depend on who was being asked — the Rabbinate itself, or local rabbinical courts.
And then there is the matter of the egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel. The Rabbinate has walked back its initial acceptance of the compromise brokered by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, endorsed by Netanyahu and approved by the Cabinet. That compromise created an area south of the Kotel for mixed prayers, but did not touch the Rabbinate-run, sex-segregated setup at the Kotel plaza. Now, with the implementation of the compromise in doubt, representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism and the Women of the Wall organization last week notified Netanyahu that they will appeal to the Supreme Court to put the initial agreement into effect.
On all three issues, the growing haredi community in Israel, despite its relative weakness in numbers, is facing off successfully against other Jewish streams which draw much of their support from the United States. But while non-Orthodox groups are mainstream here, they play a relatively minor role in Netanyahu’s political calculus. And in that analysis, the 13 Knesset seats of the two haredi parties in his coalition government speak far louder. While those political calculations may be required to keep Netanyahu in office, the acquiescence should not come at the expense of Israelis’ civil liberties and respect for all Jews.
Netanyahu has said that as the prime minister of Israel, he speaks for all Jews. When it comes to religious freedoms — such as public prayer at the Kotel and an individual’s private experience in a ritual bath — Netanyahu should act for all Jews as well.