A Plan to Reduce Tension between Religion and State in Israel

Recommendations for Policy Makers - Elections 2015

A booklet of recommendations for reducing the tension between religion and state in Israel, prepared for Israeli policy makers by IDI experts in advance of the 2015 Knesset elections, based on research conducted at IDI over the years.

In the weeks leading up to the 2015 Knesset elections, IDI compiled a series of booklets with recommendations for Israeli policy-makers, based on its extensive research over the years. In the lines below, you can find a translation of IDI's plan for reducing the tension between religion and state in Israel in five areas: Sabbath observance in the public sphere, marriage and divorce, conversion to Judaism, the status of the Chief Rabbinate, and ultra-Orthodox employment.

Tension between religion and state has characterized the State of Israel ever since its independence and has accompanied the Zionist enterprise since the first Zionist Congress in 1897. In the nearly 67 years since the founding of the state, this tension has not diminished and even seems to have intensified. The disagreements concern a variety of key issues regarding the relationship between religion and state. These include the nature of the Sabbath in the public sphere, kosher supervision, conversion, marriage and divorce, and the status and function of the Chief Rabbinate.

The isolated lifestyle of Israel's ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) sector and the complicated relationship between its members and the state create additional areas of friction. These include the issues of “equal sharing of the burden” (a catch phrase for compulsory military service by ultra-Orthodox men), the possible requirement of a core curriculum in state-funded schools, the exclusion of women in the public sphere, and Haredi participation in the labor force.

The failure to reach an accord on matters of religion and state, or contentious regulation of such matters, has caused tangible and cumulative damage in four domains:

  1. In the social arena, the lack of agreement harms relations among the different sectors of Israel's Jewish population: the ultra-Orthodox, the religious, and the secular.
  2. In the political arena, the lack of agreement periodically destabilizes Israel's political system.
  3. Regarding the system of government, the ideological dispute over matters of religion and state finds its way to the Supreme Court, which becomes a party in the ideological war against its will, at great cost to its public standing.
  4. Regarding identity, the conflict between religion and state causes many citizens to believe that there is an irreconcilable contradiction between the two parts of the constitutional definition of the State of Israel—“Jewish and democratic.”

We believe that the tension between religion and state in Israel is a result of different visions of the state’s essence and responsibility. The plan that follows does not address these different visions; rather, it focuses on legislative arrangements and executive decisions that could alleviate the tension between religion and state.

Immediately following Israel's independence, attempts were made to regulate the relationship between religion and state by means of a constitution. This initiative, however, failed; in fact, the religion and state conflict was one of the reasons why the entire constitutional effort failed. In the intervening decades, the state has been operating in the shadow of the arrangements included in the "status quo." Yet despite the coalition agreements to preserve the status quo, the battle over the nature of the state and the balance between religion and state has continued to be waged in the Knesset, the Supreme Court, and the Israeli street.

With a regard to major issues such as Sabbath observance and conversion, there are no clear statutory arrangements, and this lacuna has led to chaos. But even in areas in which formal arrangements do exist—such as marriage and divorce, kashrut, and the Chief Rabbinate—the connection between the statutory provisions and the real world is tenuous. With a regard to kashrut, for example, even though the Chief Rabbinate is the body that is authorized by law to issue kashrut certificates in Israel, it has become only one of many players in this domain, and is perhaps not even the most important.

The 19th Knesset (January 2013–December 2014) had great promise for changing the relations between religion and the state. During the election campaign, several parties put religion and state issues high on their agenda, and after the new government was formed without the ultra-Orthodox parties, there was still hope for major improvement. But once the government fell and the 19th Knesset was dissolved, these hopes were dashed. The opportunity to reach an agreed upon arrangement regarding religion and state has been missed. While the 19th Knesset enacted several reforms in matters of religion and state, the majority of the most significant reforms and amendments were thwarted. The coalition parties made no real effort to reach a substantive agreement about the full gamut of religion-and-state issues.

Over the years, representatives of civil society and the political system have made many diverse efforts to reach an accord about the relationship between religion and state. IDI made its contribution to this effort by publishing a series of proposed accords on key topics in the conflict between religion and state, as part of its initiative to draft a Constitution for the State of Israel that would include a full Bill of Rights.
IDI's plan for reducing tension between religion and state is based on the accumulated weight and depth of research and public debate on matters of religion and state. This plan does not purport to resolve all the issues in full. Nevertheless, we believe that minimizing these tensions in any way and developing feasible and acceptable solutions for even some of these issues would be of great value. For this reason, the plan includes the solutions formulated by the Institute and other institutions in the past that strike us as most appropriate for the current situation.

At the time of this writing, the election campaign for the 20th Knesset seems devoid of any significant discussion of matters of religion and state. It is our feeling that most of Israel's political parties, even those that have championed reform in this area in the past, are sweeping this issue under the rug, not necessarily for good reason. We believe that this tactic will shatter when these parties come face to face with reality. Sooner (right after the new government is formed) or sooner still (during the coalition negotiations), reality will force Israel's politicians to relate to matters of religion and state. Consequently, it would be both appropriate and fair for the parties to present voters with their positions on these matters and their vision of the appropriate solution for each issue and for the problem as a whole.

IDI's plan for reducing tension surrounding religion and state in Israel presents solutions for five key issues:

  • Sabbath observance in the public sphere
  • Marriage and divorce
  • Conversion
  • The status of the Chief Rabbinate
  • Ultra-Orthodox employment

We believe that the vast majority of Israelis can agree with the solutions presented in this proposal. Very few will see these ideas as the best possible arrangement, since each of us approaches the matter from a different ideological background. Nevertheless, the recommendations presented here would improve the situation overall without requiring anyone—religious or secular—to surrender his or her fundamental identity.

The Problem

Personal status law in Israel is in effect religious law. This means that Jews can marry and divorce only in accordance with halakha (Jewish law), in accordance with the directives of the Chief Rabbinate, and in ceremonies performed by individuals who have been authorized by the Chief Rabbinate. In Israel, people who are not recognized as Jews (including over 350,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union) and people who are ineligible to marry under religious law (such as a kohen and a divorcee) cannot contract a marriage under religious law. This exclusion infringes on the fundamental right of these individuals to establish a family.

Moreover, many couples who are able to marry according to religious law do not want to marry according to religious law for ideological reasons. Others, who would indeed like to marry through the rabbinate, are apprehensive about what might happen should they ever want to divorce, at which point they would encounter problems that stem, in part, from the unequal treatment of women in divorce cases in Jewish law.

Even without these practical problems, it is very hard to accept—from a liberal-democratic perspective—the existence of the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly, which imposes Orthodox religious law on the personal and intimate matter of marriage and divorce.

The Solution

As part of its overall initiative to draft a "Constitution by Consensus," IDI drafted a proposed “civil unions” law under the direction of Prof. Shahar Lifshitz. The provisions of this arrangement would not affect the exclusive status of religious marriage and divorce in Israel; however, couples who wished to formalize their bond in a nonreligious format would be able to do so through a special registry, known as the “Spousal Registry,” which would be maintained by the state.

The essence of IDI's proposal for civil unions is an agreement between two people to live as a family. The Spousal Registry proposal covers all the administrative and substantive aspects of formalizing this agreement as well as the conditions and terms for dissolving the couple's bond. According to the proposed arrangement, each partner would be entitled to file a request to dissolve the union, and the courts would dissolve the union in accordance with the rules stipulated in the proposal.

Couples entered in the Spousal Registry would have the same rights and duties as couples married by the rabbinate according to religious law. This would include mutual obligations such as child support and alimony, and would exclude duties or obligations that exist only under religious law.

The sole difference between the civil system and the religious system would be symbolic: couples who enter into a partnership in the civil track would not be defined as “married.” In this respect, and only in this respect, the proposal takes account of the sensitivities of the religious system that uses the term “marriage” and applies its associated holiness only to bonds that are consecrated in a religious ceremony and receive a religious seal of approval. Forfeiting the title of “marriage” has a practical advantage as well: it avoids the need for a religious divorce should one of the parties wish to dissolve the civil union and subsequently marry in a religious ceremony. Should a religious divorce not be obtained in such a situation, any children born of the second marriage could be suspected of religious illegitimacy (mamzerut).

For Further Information

The Problem

Israeli law recognizes a person as Jewish only if he or she was born to a Jewish mother or was converted. The Law of Return, which entitles all Jews to immigrate to Israel, extends this right not only to those recognized as Jews in Israel but also to non-Jews who are part of a nuclear family that includes Jews. As a result, some 350,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union currently live in Israel but are not recognized as Jews by the state

The vast majority of the people in this category are of Jewish descent. They have Jewish ancestors, see themselves as Jews, are considered to be Jews by those around them, and follow Jewish customs. Nonetheless, they are not recognized as Jews by the State of Israel.

Lacking the official status of Jews, these people cannot marry Jews in Israel, cannot be buried in Jewish cemeteries, and must contend with other problems that stem from their personal status and religious classification (such as exclusion from adopting children). This violates their human rights and, of course, hurts their sensibilities.

Moreover, many traditional, Orthodox, and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel  consider the classification of “non-Jewish” according to Jewish law to be important and are wary of marriage with people who have this classification. In the eyes of these Jews, marrying such Israelis would be tantamount to assimilation. This concern has spurred increased interest in establishing genealogical registries that would distinguish between people who are Jews according to Jewish law and people who are not—a trend that could lead to a historic rift within the Jewish people. It is difficult to predict whether, when, and how such a split could ever be repaired.

The logical solution to this problem is to enable those who are interested in conversion to Judaism to undergo a conversion recognized by the state. A brief inquiry reveals that the number of people converting in Israel is negligible: in the last 20 years, only 7% of potential converts have completed the process successfully. One reasons for this is that some of the religious court judges who are authorized to perform conversions in Israel set a high and inflexible halakhic threshold that reflects a stringent Orthodox approach to conversion. Among other things, they require potential converts to commit to full observance of all of the precepts, whether major or minor, in the future. These conversion court judges also require candidates to commit to sending their children to religious schools and to fulfill many other onerous demands. This poses a serious dilemma for the many potential converts who do not intend to live a religious lifestyle: Should they lie to the religious court or should they abandon the idea of conversion?

In recent years, religious courts have also issued a number of rulings annulling conversions retroactively, after it emerged that the converts had not been observing the commandments. Such instances diminish the motivation of potential converts to begin the conversion process even further.

The Solution

In the past, some people have proposed privatizing the conversion process, such that any religious court of three rabbis would be able to perform conversions that would receive legal recognition from the State. We do not believe that this type of privatization is appropriate, since it would effectively also privatize the authority to decide who is eligible for Israeli citizenship (through the right extended to converts by the Law of Return). On the other hand, the present situation, in which only the Chief Rabbi of Israel can issue a certificate of conversion to Judaism, is intolerable.

In cooperation with ITIM, an NGO that assists people in navigating the religious bureaucracy in Israel, IDI has drafted a proposal for a State Conversion Bill that takes the middle ground. According to this proposal, the State will only support and recognize state conversions (as opposed to private conversions), but it will permit a multiplicity of halakhic voices within the state system (unlike the current monopoly of the Chief Rabbi).

According to the IDI-ITIM proposal, every state-appointed municipal rabbi or regional rabbi will be authorized to establish a conversion court that can convert applicants from all over Israel. Similarly, any rabbi could be authorized by the Chief Rabbinate Council to perform conversions, after passing a test on the religious laws of conversion. This arrangement would give the keys of conversion to a much broader range of rabbis, who could rule according to the halakhic interpretations that they prefer. It is important to emphasize that the proposed legislation does not relate to the religious aspects of conversion; rather, it permits a multiplicity of halakhic voices within the state conversion system, including halakhic approaches that are more welcoming to potential converts. The proposal also does not change the current status of non-Orthodox streams in Israel with regard to conversion.

In order to maintain a unified national system, the proposed bill specifies that the "conversion certificate"—the final approval of conversion—will be issued only by the official appointed by the State to supervise conversions. At the same time, the law would require the rabbinate to recognize every conversion certificate, pursuant to the specified conditions. The law would also explicitly bar retroactive nullification of conversions, except in extreme cases in which the court that originally carried out the conversion, after consultation with the president of the Supreme Rabbinic Court, is persuaded that the conversion was based on deceit or that the applicant deliberately concealed information before or during the conversion process (but not afterwards).

In 2014, the Israeli government passed a resolution that is similar in many ways to IDI's proposal. This government resolution is not enough, however, because:

  1. It maintains the status of the Chief Rabbi as the final arbiter
  2. It says nothing about retroactive nullification of conversions
  3. It is merely a government resolution and accordingly, it can be superseded by a subsequent government resolution. Accordingly, primary legislation on conversion by the Knesset remains necessary.

For Further Information

A Proposal for a State Conversion Law by Yedidia Z. Stern, Shaul Farber, and Elad Caplan.

The Problem

The character of Shabbat as a day of rest in Israel has been grievously damaged by the growing operation of commercial districts and stores on Saturdays—at first in shopping centers outside of cities and later within cities as well. Although there is no doubt that the unique nature of the Sabbath in Israel has religious underpinnings, its importance goes far beyond this and rests on two other pillars, one of which is cultural-national, while the other is socio-economic.

On the cultural-national level, Shabbat is one of the unique symbols of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Many Jews, in Israel and the Diaspora, see the nature of Shabbat in the Israeli public sphere as one of the most unique and cherished features of the Israeli experience. The words of Ahad Ha’am, whose secular credentials were unquestionable, are well known: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”

On the socio-economic level, commerce on the Sabbath infringes on the social rights of workers. Employees who work on Shabbat do not always receive a compensatory day off. Even if they do, the fact that they must work on Shabbat curtails their ability to spend time with their families, who are off from work and school on Shabbat. In addition, many of the people who work on the Sabbath come from the weaker strata of society; consequently, they find it difficult to resist their employer’s demand that they extend their work week.

The proliferation of stores that are open on the Sabbath also makes religious and traditional Jews less attractive to employers as potential workers. Israelis who keep Shabbat find themselves at an occupational and economic disadvantage when compared to workers who are willing to work on Shabbat. While Israel's Hours of Work and Rest Law explicitly states that Jewish workers have the right to have a day off on the Sabbath, this provision is violated frequently and is rarely enforced; market forces have proven to be stronger than the rule of law.

The Solution

The time is ripe for a statute that will strengthen the special status of the Israeli-Jewish Shabbat on a basis that is not religious. Such legislative intervention is needed in order to restrain the market forces that are slowly eroding the character of Israel's day of rest.

As part of its comprehensive initiative to enact a Constitution by Consensus for Israel, IDI drafted the "Sabbath and Jewish Holidays Bill." This legislation would solve all of the problems presented above, while striking a balance between concern for the special character of the Sabbath, the rights of employees, and the right of secular Jews to do what they please on their day off.

We propose that facilities and events related to culture, entertainment, and recreation operate on Shabbat, but that shopping malls and other stores be closed. (An exception to this would be facilities that provide essential services, which will receive a special permit to operate.) Public transportation would run on a limited basis; this would enable the unique character of the public sphere in Israel on Shabbat to be preserved, while people who do not own a car would be able to get around on public transportation. There would also be an explicit ban on discrimination against employees who wish to have Shabbat as a day of rest. In areas with a non-Jewish majority, the day of rest would be defined by the preferences of that majority. The IDI proposal also includes a novel mechanism for resolving disputes about the Sabbath, which is intended to ensure that the enforcement of the law is supported by a broad consensus.

For Further Information

The Problem

In its current format, Israel's Chief Rabbinate does not fulfill the main purpose for which it was established. What is more, the Israeli public sees the two Chief Rabbis and most local rabbis as irrelevant; Israel's religious and ultra-Orthodox communities have their own rabbis, while secular Israelis are estranged and almost totally disconnected from the religious establishment. In fact, most Israeli Jews—religious and secular alike—come into contact with the official religious establishment only when they require religious services. Sadly, even this encounter often ends with bitter disappointment.

Most Israelis do not personally know even one rabbi; their only contact with rabbis is random or related to religious ceremonies. The vast majority do even know who their local rabbi is. The rabbis of the Chief Rabbinate are simply irrelevant to the lives of most Israelis. These rabbis, who could and should link members of the Israeli public to their Jewish identity, do not bring them closer to it. Sometimes they even distance them from it.

The Chief Rabbinate also seems to have failed when it comes to providing religious services. Most of the public believe that the services provided by the Chief Rabbinate are inadequate and sometimes even tainted by corruption. As a result, a substantial share of the population does everything possible to avoid using the services of the Chief Rabbinate.

The Solution

Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah and IDI, in a joint venture, have proposed a new model for a democratic Israeli rabbinate. The crux of the innovation pertains to the method by which rabbis are selected, the scope of the regional responsibility of rabbis, and a change in the job definition of rabbis, which would shift from "provider of religious services" to "religious leader." The proposal also recommends revising the way in which the Chief Rabbinate Council and the Chief Rabbis are elected and how religious services are provided to the citizens of Israel.

A rabbinate that is designed to serve the masses cannot be personal; for this reason, today's rabbinate in Israel is generally irrelevant to the individual citizen. At best, the Chief Rabbi or town rabbi may function as a symbol. A relevant rabbinate can emerge only in smaller communities: in smaller urban settings, in small towns, and in local neighborhoods.

In order to create a close and meaningful connection between the rabbi and his community, we propose that neighborhood and town rabbis constitute the core of the Chief Rabbinate. Each of these rabbis would be responsible for a relatively small number of residents; in this manner, these religious figures would come into direct contact with more people and really be able to “touch” them. These rabbis would serve as religious leaders for people who frequent their synagogues, but would be an even more significant resource for people who do not. They would be an accessible and immediate address for every question about religion, would provide guidance regarding Jewish life cycle ceremonies, and would serve as a source of Torah and Judaism in the neighborhood or community.

A fundamental principle of democracy is that the broader the electorate, the more the elected representatives reflects the will of the public. This was also true for generations when it came to the selection of rabbis. It was always the community that chose its rabbi. Rabbis who were chosen by the community and who knew that the community could dismiss them were committed to their flock and to their towns. Rabbis chosen by the community reflected the image of the community: a community committed to fulltime Torah study selected a great Torah scholar, a Hassidic community selected a charismatic "rebbe," and so on. Rabbis were not appointed for life; when necessary, communities could and did terminate their employment. This remains the situation in some congregations in Israel today, where the rabbis are elected by the members of the synagogue.

We propose implementing this model for the Chief Rabbinate and the selection of its rabbis. Neighborhood rabbis (and, when appropriate, rabbis of small communities) will no longer be imposed upon their communities from above by political functionaries; rather, they will be elected directly by the residents of the community or neighborhood. These rabbis will serve a fixed term of five years, after which they can run for re-election. At that point, their image and actions will be subject to review by the public.

The Chief Rabbis and members of the Chief Rabbinate Council are often (not always) selected on the basis of political considerations and as part of negotiations and bartering that have nothing to do with the important mission of the Israeli Rabbinate. As a result, in most areas of religious services—such as kashrut, conversion, and burial—policies are often biased by political influence.

For this reason, we propose replacing the current mechanism with a democratic system. In our new model, the Chief Rabbinate Council and the Chief Rabbis would be elected by neighborhood and community rabbis. The new electoral body would have over 1,000 members, each of whom would have been elected by the men and women of the community that he serves. This type of mechanism would enable the electoral body to faithfully represent the diversity of views in the Israeli public and guarantee the democratization of religious services in Israel, both locally and nationally.

A Chief Rabbinate Council elected by local rabbis would be more diverse and would include rabbis and religious leaders with a variety of religious and halakhic outlooks. It would represent all those who are interested in the character of the religious services provided to Jews in Israel and all those for whom the Jewish identity of the State of Israel is dear. A Chief Rabbi elected in this fashion would also reflect the Jewish identity of the citizens of Israel in a more faithful manner.

The Problem

The ultra-Orthodox "Haredi" sector in Israel—roughly 10% of the population—is growing rapidly. In tandem, its influence on the Israeli economy is growing as well. A majority of the members of this community (56%) live below the poverty line, and half of the members of this community are younger than 14. This means that the productive participation of this community in the Israeli economy is an existential imperative. If its members remain outside the circle of employment, they will be a heavy burden on the economy; however, if they join the workforce, they will become an invaluable engine of growth. It is also essential, of course, to take lateral steps that can extricate the Haredi community from poverty and reduce the socio-economic disparities in Israeli society.

In recent years, we have witnessed a slow but significant change in the ultra-Orthodox community. In the last decade, for instance, the number of Haredim pursuing an academic degree has increased by hundreds of percent; some 8,000 ultra-Orthodox men and women are enrolled in colleges and universities in Israel today. There has also been a marked increase in Haredi participation in the workforce. Between 2008 and 2013, the percentage of ultra-Orthodox men holding jobs rose from 33.5% to 44.5% and the percentage of employed ultra-Orthodox women rose from 55% to 70%. In 2010, the Government of Israel set an employment objective of 63% for the ultra-Orthodox sector by 2020.

The statistics regarding wages and salaries in the ultra-Orthodox community, however, are less encouraging. Between 2003 and 2010, the compensation paid to employed Haredi men declined from 77% of the average salary paid to non-Haredi Jewish men to 73% of the average salary paid to non-Haredi men. Among women, the drop was even sharper: from 83% of the average salary paid to non-Haredi women to 64% of the same. There are two reasons for low productivity in the ultra-Orthodox sector: first, the hourly wage of members of the Haredi community is only 70% of that of members of the non-Haredi community; second, the length of their workweek is only about 80% of the national average.

The State of Israel now faces a test: Will the ultra-Orthodox pioneers currently exploring the possibilities of entering the labor market be able to realize their hopes? If they do find jobs, will they be able to make good use of their skills and receive salaries commensurate with their qualifications? If the answers to these two questions—one about employment rates and the other about compensation—are affirmative, it is quite likely that the process of Haredi integration in the workforce will speed up considerably. Such acceleration would have broad and positive macro-economic implications. However, if going out to work does not extract the ultra-Orthodox community from the circle of poverty, the process of integration that we are witnessing today may come to a halt and even be reversed.

The Solution

Alongside current government policy that focuses on ultra-Orthodox employment rates, it is essential to promote policy that will lead to a rise in Haredi income and to diversification of the employment sectors in which Haredim work. Increasing compensation for ultra-Orthodox labor is a complex and protracted process; delaying this process would take a high toll on the economy and public welfare. In terms of Haredi employment capacity, the process must include acquiring professional skills, on-the-job experience, and knowledge about the labor market. It also requires establishing contact with “open” social networks—that is, networks outside the ultra-Orthodox sector. The labor market also must change significantly. Employers must make organizational changes that will enable them to hire ultra-Orthodox workers. In terms of awareness, it is important to cultivate success stories that will offer a promising horizon to young ultra-Orthodox men and women and make them want to integrate into the high-tech industry.

Ultra-Orthodox men and women who have completed serious job training programs and/or have a university education are paid much more than those who lack such training. The huge gap in income influences their tax payments to the national treasury and the size of the employment grant (negative income tax) that is given to low wage-earners. Accordingly, government investment in high-level training is very worthwhile in terms of cost-benefit, especially in the long term.

In March 2015, IDI experts, in conjunction with government ministries, will publish a master plan for ultra-Orthodox employment in the coming decade. This plan focuses on integrating Haredi men and women into the workforce and helping them transition into high-quality positions in the labor market. It specifies five growth engines for increasing salaries, numbers of hours worked, and options for advancement for ultra-Orthodox workers:

  1. Providing incentives to employers that will stimulate the demand for high-caliber workers
  2. Offering high-quality professional training programs in academic settings
  3. Providing incentives to placement centers for ultra-Orthodox job seekers that will encourage placement in high wage positions and fulltime jobs
  4. Encouraging models of success through excellence programs
  5. Ensuring occupational diversity in jobs that are in high demand in the labor market and in fields in which wages are high.

The master plan that is being developed will offer detailed recommendations for each of these growth engines, including suggestions for changes in the model of government incentives and the establishment of new frameworks for quality integration of ultra-Orthodox Jews into the workforce.