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Sunday 17 February 2008

Tackling the Elephant - Avi Shafran

Disclaimer! This articles doesn't represent the views of Pro-Zion - in
fact the opposite. But it's still an interesting read.
Tackling the elephant

Mere days before I was privileged to participate in a Washington, D.C.
symposium on religious freedom in Israel, the Malaysian government
threatened to withhold a Catholic newspaper's publishing permit, to
punish it for having dared to use the Muslim appellation for the Creator
in its Malay-language pages.
A week later, an Afghan judge sentenced a journalism student in that
country to death for distributing an article critical of Islam's founder.
All in all, making the case for Israel's respect for religious rights
isn't really much of a challenge.
An impressive number of students and interested others braved snowy
weather to attend the January 17 event, sponsored by the Berkley Center
for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University. Of the
three presenters, I was last and, since the others -Knesset member Rabbi
Michael Melchior and author Dr. David Elcott - did admirable jobs of
covering much that lay in my prepared remarks, when my turn came I
truncated my speech and focused on the increasingly restless elephant in
the room.
Well covered before I spoke were the facts that Israel is both a
democracy and a state with a special relationship to a religion (like
many around the globe); that it is pledged, through its declaration of
independence to protect the religious rights of its citizens; and that
it generally in fact does so in an exemplary manner.
There have been occasional allegations of inequities in funding for
upkeep of Muslim holy places and of disproportionate appropriation of
Muslim-owned land. Such issues must be addressed, of course, and have
been, in Israeli courts. To that I added that complaints by some Israeli
and West Bank Muslims that the Israeli security barrier does not allow
them to worship in the mosque of their first choice cannot be reasonably
construed as akin to a gratuitous denial of religious rights. Such
inconveniences are, while regrettable, unintentional results of
legitimate security concerns.
THEN I turned to the elephant - "Jewish religious pluralism." Leaders of
heterodox Jewish movements regularly rail about the lack of official
recognition of their movement's ceremonies in Israel, portraying it as a
curtailment of religious rights.
In addressing the pluralism pachyderm, my Exhibit A was the Jewish
state's other foundational document. Less than a year before Israel
declared its existence, on June 19, 1947, what came to be known as the
"status quo agreement" was signed by the future first prime minister of
the state, David Ben-Gurion and other officials of the Jewish Agency.
In the words of professor Harry Reicher, University of Pennsylvania
adjunct professor of international law: "For significant elements of the
religious population... the status quo agreement was the inducement to
their participation in that creation [of Israel], was quite
fundamental to the character with which the state was stamped at its
birth." Addressed to the Agudath Israel World Organization, that
document too, like the state's declaration that would follow, pledged
the state-to-be to guaranteeing religious freedom for all its
inhabitants. But it went on to promise state observance of Shabbat as
the official day of rest, provision of only kosher food in government
kitchens and a system of traditional Jewish religious education. And,
finally, it assured that "everything possible will be done [to] avoid,
Heaven forfend, the splitting of the House of Israel into two" - that
would result from multiple standards regarding Jewish "personal status"
issues like marriage, divorce and conversion.
THOSE ELEMENTS were the nascent state's founders' concessions to the
word "Jewish" in the phrase "Jewish State." For that phrase to have
meaning, the signatories realized, credible definitions of words like
"Jew" and "Judaism" were essential. From a haredi Jew's perspective, the
only such workable definitions are those based on the "highest common
denominator" of halacha, or Jewish religious law. A Reform Jew would
presumably offer different definitions. But whatever the yardstick, if
"Jewish State" is to be more than a hollow slogan, something must do the
And, as a result of the status quo agreement, something - in fact
halacha - indeed did do the measuring, and has been doing so for the
past 60 years (not to mention the several millennia prior). That
historical standard for establishing who a Jew is, and what a
conversion, Jewish marriage and Jewish divorce are, has preserved a
single Jewish people in the Jewish state.
THOSE WHO demand multiple standards on the grounds of religious freedom
misstate the case. What they are advocating is not freedom of religion -
which is alive and well in Israel - but rather a redefinition of
Judaism, and the radical amendment of one of Israel's foundational
charters that would result, as Ben Gurion foresaw, in the "splitting of
the House of Israel into two" (or three, or four...).
Thus far, due to both the historical and legal importance of the status
quo agreement and the traditional bent of a large majority of Israelis,
Israel's single-standard approach to Jewish religious matters (what the
media, with characteristic "objectivity," prefer to call the "Orthodox
monopoly") remains in place.
There are, though, threats to the delicate balance between religious
freedom and Israel's core Jewish identity, in particular the state's
highest court, which, under its former chief justice Aharon Barak,
proclaimed a goal of promoting what it deems to be the "fundamental
values of democracy" and has shown itself ready to, in effect, legislate
by fiat (prompting influential American judge Richard Posner to call Mr.
Barak an "enlightened despot").
What the Israeli Supreme Court may in future years choose to deem
"enlightened" is anyone's guess. But an educated one should worry Jews -
of whatever affiliation - who consider Israel's Jewish character
essential to its identity, unity and future.
The havoc that can be wrought by unbridled elephants is legend.
The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.


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