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Hiddush CEO Rabbi Uri Regev & Chairman Stanley P. Gold

A message from Hiddush

February 23, 2017
27 Sh'vat, 5777

Dear Friends,

Interestingly, both Israel and the USA in recent weeks have been focused on the process of appointing Justices to their respective Supreme Courts. Everybody understands the critical and lasting impact that Justices who sit on their countries' highest courts have in shaping the path of the country when it comes to competing interpretations of the law.

Today, months of nomination deliberations for four positions that will soon become vacant on Israel's Supreme Court came to an end. Israel's minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked, the token secular representative of the Zionist Orthodox Jewish Home party, chaired the nominations committee.

The Minister of Justice and her partners on Israel's political right stressed their intention to change the make-up of the Court from “judicial activism” to “conservatism”, to get the court off their backs and less inclined to interfere with Knesset legislation and governmental policies, and to be more reflective of the political and religious right.

While having to make some compromises, due to the nature of Israel's process of nominating justices, nevertheless Ayelet Shaked announced today, as the process concluded: “The judicial appointments this evening express the human as well as jurist common sense we so need as a society and which has been so direly absent from the highest judicial echelon... The stirring wheel of our judicial flagship have changed their direction tonight.”

We at Hiddush keep out of the political debate over settlements, which has been the main thrust of the tensions over the current appointments. Still, we see the need to point out that this matter also extends to the clash over religion & state matters and Israel's core identity as a Jewish and democratic state. This clash often finds its way to the Supreme Court, and serves as a launching point for catapulting abuse at the Court. For example, you may remember MK Rabbi Gafni’s reaction to the Supreme Court ruling, which granted non-Orthodox converts access to Israel’s publicly funded and operated ritual baths:

“The Supreme Court declared war on the Torah. It will not cease and will not rest until it destroys and decimates Judaism in the country such that, God forbid, nothing will be left. We will put up a battle and fight against it.”

Regarding this aspect of the debate, it was important for Shaked and her party to increase the number of Orthodox judges on the court. In repeated statements she rejected former Chief Justice Prof. Barak's position that the values of Judaism in the "Jewish and democratic" State should be interpreted and applied in a way that would be "compatible with the democratic character of the state". Shaked enthusiastically embraces a vision of a Jewish state where the marriage and divorce laws for Jews are decided on the basis of Torah law, and the values of Jewish law are its basic foundations. In criticizing judicial activism, she self-righteously stated that she believes the wisdom of the people: “There is nothing more justified and right than the decision of the people and its representatives... their decision should be the final word in the public arena... the people are interested in a state with a real living Jewish character.”

The truth, though, is exactly the opposite. The people have much greater trust in the Court than in the Knesset or the Government. The people support the Court's efforts at expanding religious freedom and equality. The people reject the notion of a Jewish character for the state that is tantamount to religious coercion and forced Orthodox marriages for all Jews. This is clear to everyone with a minimal level of integrity. The only ones who do not see it are Israel's politicians who instead bow to the dictates of the ultra-Orthodox parties rather than listen to the people.

Regardless of what your views on the territories, the settlements, and politics in Israel, you too should be concerned that the present policies of the Minister of Justice and her political partners pose a real threat to the continued role of the Supreme Court as a defender of religious freedom, and a real threat to the needed balance implied in the formula describing Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state."

All the very best,

Stanley P. Gold,
Hiddush Chair

Rabbi Uri Regev,
Hiddush President

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Chief Rabbi Yosef attacks Israel's civil courts

Last week at a national rabbinic conference, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef declared that rabbis should warn the Israeli public that in the event of legal disputes, they should take their cases to the rabbinical courts, rather than to Israel's civil courts.

We can always trust Israel’s Chief Rabbis to provide us with new evidence for why we must urgently do away with the Chief Rabbinate, which has no precedent in Jewish history and poses an ever-growing existential threat to the wellbeing of the Jewish and democratic State of Israel.

This time, we turn our attention to a national rabbinic conference held last week, at which Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef made a strong pitch to the assembled rabbis, aimed at enlisting them to undermine the civil judiciary and delegitimize Israel's courts and the laws they apply. Rabbi Yosef is truly his father’s son, for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef also declared that Israel’s civil courts were evil, invalidating an Orthodox witness to a Jewish marriage on the basis of his being a civil court judge.

The ultra-Orthodox newspaper "b'Kehila" published the words of Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef who announced last week at a rabbinic conference that rabbis should warn the Israeli public that in the event of legal disputes, they should take their cases to the rabbinical courts, rather than to Israel's civil courts. He explained that he takes the ultra-Orthodox position of rejecting the legitimacy of state law and of the civil courts, and that he denies their authority. He also denies the validity of women serving as witnesses in court, and denies the validity of non-Orthodox witnesses and state witnesses.

Among other gems, the Chief Rabbi declared the following:

    "Rabbis should warn the public that in the case of a dispute they should only bring it before the rabbinic courts..."

    "The civil courts decide matters against the Torah."

    "They accept testimonies that are against the Torah. They accept witnesses who are not God fearing and desecrate Shabbat, as well as women. Are women eligible witnesses?!"

    "It is prohibited to base rulings on state witnesses. A state witness is ineligible to testify, and nothing of his testimony should be accepted."

When we hear about the ultra-Orthodox Knesset members pressuring their Government Coalition partners to change Israeli law to allow rabbinical courts to hear civil disputes, we must keep this context in mind. The real goal is a state ruled by ultra-Orthodox religious law. This is a genuine threat to the rule of law in Israel, which the ultra-Orthodox parties attempt to hide with their slick words.

As outrageous as Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef's recent pronouncements are, we should be reminded that this is not an exceptional view, but rather an ongoing thread in the religious thinking of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinic and political leadership. We have pointed out, for instance, the very clear rejection of the legitimacy of Knesset legislation and of the Israeli civil judiciary, which is preached by the former Chief Rabbi of Israel Rabbi Shlomo Amar who now serves as Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.

The Chief Rabbinate is, in essence, a saboteur attempting to undermine the civil judiciary and Israeli civil law, admonishing the Israeli rabbis to warn the public that it should not turn to civil courts, but only to rabbinic courts. There is little doubt that if the likes of Rabbi Yosef and Rabbi Amar and their political cronies were to gain further control over the State of Israel, per their vision of a Torah state, we would be far closer to the model of Iran and Saudi Arabia than to being among the family of Western democracies.

Political cynicism and horse trading fund the Chief Rabbinate of Israel's operations, while it and its political supporters undermine the very cornerstones of Israel's democracy, preaching with no compunction that Israelis should circumvent the civil courts and Knesset law. They aim to turn Israeli into a dark theocracy where women and secular citizens are not permitted to bear testimony in court. All matters would be dictated by the corrupt Chief Rabbinate, rather than according to the principles of democracy accepted throughout the civilized world.

It is not Judaism that is in conflict with democracy and modernity. Rather, it is this specific, archaic, rigid interpretation, advanced by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate itself, which characterizes the religious powers that have gained control over religious life in Israel, which exemplifies Israel’s clash of religion & state.

81% support ending the Chief Rabbinate's kashrut monopoly

Most of the Jewish Israeli public supports granting kashrut certification to restaurants that operate on Saturdays (Shabbat). The High Court once again finds itself dealing with the rotten fruits of Israeli politics, who give in over and over again to the religious parties' dictates, against the wishes of the majority of the Israeli public.

This week, seven justices of the Supreme Court sat in judgment over round two of the legal battle regarding the Chief Rabbinate's monopoly over kashrut certification in Israel. On Tuesday, an expanded panel of seven Supreme Court justices re-heard a petition submitted by the Israel Religious Action Center that seeks to allow private entities to provide kashrut certificates, not just Israel's Chief Rabbinate.

In June of last year, the High Court rejected arguments to allow restaurants to declare themselves kosher with a kashrut license from an independent kashrut authority and not that of the Chief Rabbinate. However, the petitioners were granted the right to have the case re-heard before an expanded panel of justices.

It's too early to estimate what the outcome of this expanded Supreme Court panel will be, but Justice Esther Hayot’s remarks regarding the Chief Rabbinate’s approach were quite notable: “This approach is a bit paternalistic, which says that a person cannot work out for himself if this is important or not for him and decide to enter [the restaurant] or not,” she said during the hearing. “As long as his presentation [of the business as kosher] is correct, and he says what he does and does not do, why can’t he write it [that his restaurant is kosher]? Who is he deceiving?”

The question of kashrut is one of the key confrontational areas in the larger question of religion & state in Israel. Hiddush has been looking at this issue, both with regard to the legal questions involved, as well as the reaction of the Jewish population, and where it stands on these issues.

According to Hiddush’s most recent public opinion survey, 63% of Jewish Israelis keep kosher to some degree. Of these 48% keep kosher both inside and outside their homes, 13% keep kosher inside the home but less so outside, and 2% keep kosher primarily outside the home. 37% do not keep kosher at all. These are the findings of the Hiddush survey conducted by the Smith Polling Institute in December 2016 among a representative sample of 500 adult Jewish Israelis. The findings are consistent with those published in a Pew Center poll last year.

There is a high demand among Jewish Israelis for kosher food, but the majority oppose the Chief Rabbinate's monopoly on kashrut certification. Further, this survey reveals that the majority of Jewish Israelis support keeping eligibility for kashrut certification independent of other religious practices, such as whether or not restaurants operate during Shabbat. In order to be certified as kosher by the Chief Rabbinate, restaurants must remain closed on Shabbat.

According to the 2016 Israel Religion & State Index, conducted by the Smith Polling Institute and published by Hiddush on the eve of Rosh HaShanah, support for ending the Chief Rabbinate's monopoly has gained widespread traction with the Israeli public. 81% of Jewish Israelis support opening the kashrut certification market to competition beyond the Chief Rabbinate, and 18% support maintaining the Chief Rabbinate's monopoly. Among those who support dissolving the Rabbinate's monopoly, 52% support opening the kashrut market to professionals of all Jewish denominations, and 29% support opening the kashrut market only to Orthodox authorities.

Another survey finding highlights the degree to which the Rabbinate doesn't even represent the Jewish Israelis who adhere to religious precepts: Among Zionist Orthodox Jews, 60% support opening the kashrut regulation market to competition and ending the Rabbinate's monopoly. Even among Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jews, 41% support ending the Rabbinate's monopoly. Among voters for the non-Haredi Government Coalition parties, 81% of Likud, 94% of Kulanu, 88% of Yisrael Beiteinu, and 68% of Jewish Home support ending the Rabbinate's monopoly.

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