2017-09-27 / Mideast

Worried about pluralism in Israel? So are Israelis.

By ANDREW TOBIN JTA


A woman praying during a Women of the Wall service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. 
JTA photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90. A woman praying during a Women of the Wall service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. JTA photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90. JERUSALEM—For non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews worried by the Israeli government’s unfriendly policies toward them this year, a new poll has some good news.

The 2017 annual survey by Hiddush given to JTA ahead of its release offers indications that the Israeli Jewish public is as supportive as ever of religious pluralism, if not more so. Few are happy with how the state handles religion, and a record number would like to disentangle Judaism and politics.

“When you look across the years, there is a consistent high-level, and on many issues a growing level, of support of freedom of religion and equality,” said Hiddush CEO Uri Regev. “As a result, the gap between the public and the political leaders is growing.”

The Rafi Smith Institute in July conducted the survey for Hiddush, a group that promotes religious pluralism in Israel, based on a representative sample of 800 Jewish-Israeli adults. The margin of error is 3.5 percent. Hiddush has commissioned a version of the survey since 2009.

Many of this year’s findings are in line with those of previous years. Notably, 65 percent of Israeli Jews support giving Reform and Conservative Judaism equal official standing to Orthodox Judaism. Among secular Jews, who account for some 40 percent of Israeli Jewry, the number was 92 percent.

Such a radical move would amount to dismantling the Chief Rabbinate, Israel’s haredi Orthodox rabbinical authority, which controls marriage and other Jewish services in the country.

Also, 84 percent of Jews agree Israel should uphold the freedom of religion and conscience promised in its Declaration of Independence, 67 percent support state recognition of non-Orthodox marriage and 50 percent would personally prefer it.

At the same time, the survey reveals a significant spike in support for separation of religion and state. Fully 68 percent of Israeli Jews embrace this principle, which Regev said is interpreted as entailing a depoliticization of religion rather than a more complete American-style division. Support is up 5 percent from last year and 13 percent since 2010.

Zooming in on recent government policies on religion and state, the Hiddush survey found 73 percent of Israeli Jews oppose the new conversion law, which grants the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over officially recognized Jewish conversions in Israel. As to the government-backed nation-state bill, for the first time enshrining in law Israel’s status as a Jewish state, 65 percent want it to explicitly protect religious freedom for all.

The survey did not ask about the agreement to create an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall—the government retreated from the deal in June, outraging many Diaspora Jews and inspiring petitions now being considered by the Supreme Court. But a June survey by Hiddush found that 63 percent of Israeli Jews oppose the government’s action.

In general, support among Jewish Israelis for separation of religion and state and pluralistic policies is correlated with secularity and voting for more left-wing and less religious parties. Voters for haredi political parties overwhelmingly oppose both.

Despite recently escalating political rhetoric and legislation aimed at weakening the Supreme Court for its alleged disregard of Israel’s Jewish values, the survey found widespread support for the principles underlying many of its recent rulings and, at least relative to other government institutions, for the court itself.

The Supreme Court recently broke the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over kosher certification and struck down legislation from 2015 meant to delay efforts to increase the rate at which haredi yeshiva students are drafted into the military.

According to the survey, public support for opening the kosher market to competition with the state acting as a supervisor continued to rise, to 80 percent of Jewish Israelis. Among secular Jews, the number was 95 percent, with 80 percent backing the introduction of non-Orthodox certification. As in previous years, 83 percent think yeshiva students should be required to do military or national service, though a third would settle for national service and 14 percent are OK with some exemptions.

Asked for the first time this year which institution they most trust, a plurality of Israelis, 39 percent, chose the Supreme Court over the government, the Knesset, the Chief Rabbinate or the rabbinical courts. The least trusted institution is the government followed by the Chief Rabbinate.

The survey indicates that the state’s handling of issues of religion and state is one cause for its lack of public support. A large majority of Israeli Jews, 78 percent, are dissatisfied with the current government on such issues. Only a majority of voters of the Mizrahi haredi political party Shas are satisfied.

According to Regev, there is growing frustration in Israel with political kowtowing to the haredi parties. After their opposition led to the suspension of the Western Wall deal, the parties in July pushed through a law allowing state-run mikvahs, or ritual baths, to bar non- Orthodox Jews from entry. In September, they brought to a sudden halt Shabbat repair work on train tracks across the country by threatening to bolt the government over the issue, wreaking havoc on the workday commutes of tens of thousands of Israelis.

However, Regev predicted, the haredi community will continue to call the shots as religion and-state issues remain low on the priority list of most Israelis. A Channel 10 poll ahead of the 2015 election found that for most Israelis, cost-of-living and social issues would be the main determinants of their vote, followed by security. Only 9 percent said they would vote primarily based on religion-and-state issues.

Hiddush Chairman Stanley Gold called on Diaspora Jews to step in. The annual Hiddush poll found that 55 percent of Israeli Jews support American Jewish involvement in religion-and-state issues.

“Jewish Diaspora leaders concerned for the future of the Jewish people and concerned with strengthening Israel as a Jewish and democratic state must partner with Israeli organizations working in this field to bring about the necessary change: Full freedom of religion and conscience and total equality, regardless of religious identity,” he said in a statement.

Regev, who issued a statement signed by dozens of leaders from across the religious spectrum of Judaism calling for sweeping reforms to Israel’s official religious establishment and its policies, suggested a shift in focus to those issues that most affect the daily life of Israelis. In a December survey, Hiddush found that the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over Jewish marriage and divorce in Israel is by far the most important religion-and-state issue to Jews, while prayer at the Western Wall is by far the least important one. The same survey found that 60 percent of Israeli Jews support American Jewish involvement in the marriage issue. 

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