The resistible rise to power of Israel’s Rabbis

September 19, 2017
Sarah Benton

1) Peter Beaumont in The Observer, 2) Andrew Tobin, JTA
See also Religious bigotry is alive and well in Israel

Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox wedding, where male and female are separated. Photo by Yaakov Naumi/Flash90

Hardline Israeli rabbis use tough checks on Jewish identity to block marriages

An ultra-orthodox religious court is infringing human rights by demanding Israelis prove their Jewish status, critics say

By Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem, The Observer
September 17, 2017

Reut T, a 28-year-old Israeli secretary, regards herself as a traditional and observant Jew, attending synagogue each week. So having her Jewishness questioned when she wanted to marry was shocking and humiliating.

The news, delivered in a summons to a rabbinical court, came out of the blue. Not only could she not be married by the rabbinate, she was told, but her very status as Jewish was being questioned, in a case now being challenged before Israel’s supreme court.

Reut – who asked not to be identified to prevent further issues for her family – is not alone. According to figures seen by the Observer, she is one of a growing number of Israeli citizens who, despite being recognised as Jewish by the state, have had their Jewishness questioned by an official rabbinate that enjoys an almost exclusive monopoly on state marriage and other issuesThis was once a rare issue that affected only a handful of Israelis, but this has changed under a newly assertive chief rabbinate, dominated by the ultra-orthodox. A group called ITIM: Resources and Advocacy for Jewish Life, which is representing Reut and other families, says the rabbinate has summoned scores of people in the past two years for investigation to prove their Jewish status.

From 2011 to 2016 there was a 460% rise in the number of people rejected as “non-Jews” by the rabbinical courts

According to figures acquired by the group under a freedom of information request, there was an increase of 100% from 2011-2016 in the number of people labelled “pending confirmation of Jewish status”. In the same period there has been a 460% rise in the number of people rejected as “non-Jews” by the rabbinical courts. This is both shaming and painful, as Reut attests, and many of those affected have chosen to keep their experience private to protect other relatives whose own Jewishness could also be questioned.

“These are family members who have undergone thorough examination of their Jewishness and came to live in Israel,” lawyers for Reut and ITIM argued in an appeal contesting that the rabbinical courts have no authority, by law, to investigate or reject, on their own initiative, the Jewishness of Israeli citizens. “Suddenly and without their will or consent, a cloud of doubt is cast over their Jewishness. They are required to answer to the rabbinical court, without having done anything to deserve a trial over their identity. There is not enough space to describe the personal and emotional damage this situation creates.”

Ultra-orthodox Jews

An Ultra-Orthodox bride,  covered from head to foot in layers of white, is led to her husband-to-be. The male guests then perform a ritual dance, all as per Orthodox rabbinical instruction. Above, March 2016 photo by AP. Below, the men’s dance, photo by Getty

The sudden rise in investigations also coincides with a vaguely worded but far-reaching ruling issued by the rabbinical courts in 2016 calling for investigation if “a doubt has arisen considering the Jewishness of a relative” requiring the courts “to clarify the matter of their Jewishness for the purpose of marriage according to Jewish law”.

The increase comes amid a wider cultural conflict between the ultra-orthodox-dominated chief rabbinate and less hardline groups in Israel and the wider Jewish diaspora over what it means to be Jewish and who is allowed to define Jewishness. This led, among other things, to a clash this year over plans to allow men and women to pray together at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

It has also resulted in the disclosure of an alleged “blacklist” of 160 rabbis worldwide whom the rabbinate does not trust to check the Jewishness of immigrants to Israel: among the names on the list is the US rabbi who oversaw the conversion of Ivanka Trump.

Reut’s problem is that she came to Israel from the former Soviet Union aged 10 months, the granddaughter of an orphaned Holocaust survivor adopted by a non-Jewish couple who made antisemitic comments to her. Her grandmother was scarred by her experience, Reut said, and after fleeing her adoptive parents as a teenager hid the fact she was Jewish on official USSR papers, a decision that has come back to haunt their family.

“When I decided to get married I knew I would have to go through a registration process so I got in touch with a religious organisation that helps with the paperwork,” she told the Observer. “One of the rabbis said it was problematic because we didn’t have my grandmother’s birth certificate, but that they would try to find it in the archive.”

But far from helping Reut, the rabbi instead raised the issue of her Jewishness with the rabbinate. “The next thing I knew,” she recalled, “was that I had been summoned to a rabbinical court in Tel Aviv to discuss my Jewish status.”

A rabbinical court interrogates a woman who has converted to Judaism. Photo by Flash90

The process led to Reut, her brother and her mother being listed as “not Jewish” according to the rabbinate.

Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM, says it is a question of how Jewishness is defined in Israel, and how the rabbinate is using this – not least for almost a million former Soviet Jews who came to Israel under a state-administered right of return that has already ruled on their Jewish status for citizenship purposes.

“This is a very worrisome trend. Israel is a nation of immigrants. If this continues, it puts in danger the most basic human rights of more than a million citizens,” said Farber. “Beyond this, it is also against Jewish law, which states that one must take at their word a person who says they are Jewish. A small group is imposing its fundamentalist views on the Israeli immigrant population.

“For the first 50 years of the state it was largely a pro forma thing. You defined yourself as Jewish and you brought witnesses who said you were Jewish. But then as the rabbinate became more powerful and independent, and as new technology allowed it, it became no longer a question of trust.

“A whole department was created to check on documentation which morphed – seven years ago – into the compilation of an entire handbook. That was the first time such a book was published. That all led to the latest development, the initiating of Jewishness investigations, a process that started escalating in 2015. And now it appears they’re not only checking people registering to get married but rechecking people already married if they have any basis for suspicion.”

Farber believes there is a wider issue at stake than simply individuals and families. “It’s about what Israel is going to be. We don’t interrogate Jews and put them through investigations.”

He links recent moves by the chief rabbinate and courts in part to Israeli coalition politics, which has allowed the small ultra-orthodox parties that prop up prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing government to wield disproportionate influence.

For Reut the experience has been humiliating.

“It was very important to me to get married according to Jewish law. In the end I had to go through a private organisation to do it and then get married in Cyprus to be recognised as married under civil law in Israel.

“I feel like a second-class citizen. It is absolutely ridiculous that as an Israeli citizen who goes to synagogue every week I am not allowed to get married here just because someone decided they had doubts about my Jewishness.”

Chief Rabbinate telling more and more Israelis they aren’t Jews

By Andrew Tobin, JTA
September 16, 2017

JERUSALEM – Israel’s rabbinical courts in recent years have ramped up their practice of blacklisting citizens they deem not Jewish, internal data released Sunday show.

With increasing frequency, the courts have placed Israelis, almost all of them immigrants with Jewish heritage, on lists that prevent them from marrying Jews. The courts argue that they are acting to preserve the coherence of the Jewish people.

But critics say the rabbinical courts have stepped outside their legal jurisdiction and beyond what is required by even an Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law.

“They have now made everybody fair game to have their Jewishness challenged,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of ITIM, a nonprofit that guides Israelis through the country’s religious bureaucracy. “Once you open that door, you’re exponentially expanding your pool and your numbers are going to go up.”

The courts keep two lists: one for Israelis they deem “not Jewish” and the other for those whose “Jewishness needs clarification.” But the consequences for those on both lists are the same: They cannot marry or access Jewish services through the Chief Rabbinate, Israel’s haredi-dominated rabbinical authority, which oversees the rabbinical courts.

This means they are also barred from marrying Jews in Israel, since the Chief Rabbinate has a monopoly on Jewish marriage here. However, Israel recognizes civil marriages performed abroad, and many Jews have turned to this option.

Last year, the total number of Israelis blacklisted by the rabbinical courts was 454, compared to 134 in 2012. Of the 3,988 Israelis added to the lists since they were created in 1954, 2,783 were ruled “not Jewish.” According to ITIM, 22 percent of the names on the lists were added between 2015 and 2016.

ITIM obtained the statistics from the rabbinical courts through a freedom of information request.

Simon Yaakovi, director of the Rabbinical Courts Administration in Israel, speaking during an interview in his Jerusalem office, July 27, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Farber attributed the accelerating growth of the lists in part to increased assertiveness by the Chief Rabbinate in checking who is a Jew. The most recent — and extreme — example, he said, is the rabbinical courts’ willingness to investigate not just Israelis who applied for marriage, but also their family members.

According to experts, the Chief Rabbinate has also started sending more and more marriage applicants to rabbinical courts to be vetted. ITIM officials said the rabbinical courts now investigate more than 5,000 people for their Jewishness each year. They estimated that most of those people are Jewish and simply cannot prove it.

Because Jewishness is traditionally passed down from mother to child, the rabbinical courts bring in siblings or matrilineal relatives of marriage applicants and typically issue a ruling that applies to everyone. This has been going on for least a decade and routinely for at least the past year and a half.

ITIM learned about the practice in early 2016 and appealed to Israel’s High Court of Justice on behalf of four such families. It argued that the rabbinical courts — they are empowered to resolve disputes related to Jewish religious matters, including marriage and divorce — do not have the legal jurisdiction to adjudicate the Jewishness of Israelis without their consent.

Before turning to the High Court, ITIM appealed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem. Apparently in response to those appeals, and days before denying the first two in December, the Chief Rabbinate officially mandated the courts’ practice of investigating family members.

Nearly all the rabbinical courts’ investigations of Jewishness target immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their descendants. It was the influx of more than a million people from those countries starting in the late 1980s under Israel’s Law of Return, which guarantees automatic citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent, that moved the Chief Rabbinate to begin regularly checking the Jewishness of marriage applicants and make it official policy in 2002.

The rabbinical courts did not respond to a request for comment just ahead of Shabbat. But Rabbi Shimon Yaakovi, an attorney who directs the Rabbinical Courts Administration, told JTA in January that the rabbinical courts must protect the Jewish nation from being unwittingly compromised by intermarriage.

“We can’t have someone walking around wrongly thinking he’s a Jew, and his family and friends believing it,” he said. “I understand people’s need to be part of the Jewish collective in Israel, but there are rules, and if we don’t obey the rules we undermine halacha. Judaism is not being measured by feelings.”

Haredi Orthodox men praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Jan. 12, 2017. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
But some religious experts say background checks of Jews are in no way required by halacha, or Jewish law.

“If the court found out there was an attempt to hide something or cheat the rabbis, I can understand they have to check [the person’s Jewishness] again,” David Stav, a leading religious Zionist rabbi, told JTA in January. “Halachically speaking, though, there is no need to check anything about someone’s story unless he gives you a good reason to be suspicious.”

Farber said the Chief Rabbinate’s latest expansion of its “inquisition” is part of a larger push under the current right-wing government to cement control over how Judaism is defined in Israel. This summer, the government withdrew from a deal to create an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall, and the Knesset passed a law allowing non-Orthodox Jews to be barred from state mikvahs, or ritual baths. Also, ITIM released another list of some 160 rabbis, including several prominent American Orthodox leaders, whom the Chief Rabbinate does not trust to confirm the Jewish identities of immigrants.

By building an ever-higher wall around the Jewish people, Farber said, the Chief Rabbinate is threatening the Zionist dream.

“Instead of putting the onus on people to have to prove they’re Jewish, we should be embracing Jews from all around the world,” he said. “The best way to protect Jewish identity is not to circle the wagons, but to take down the walls and embrace people.”

Yael and her family immigrated to Israel from Belarus when she was a baby, and they are among those included in ITIM’s appeal to the High Court. Having already had her case denied by the Supreme Rabbinical Court in December, just days after she married her Israeli Jewish husband in an illegal private Orthodox wedding, she is not holding her breath this time.

“It was heartbreaking. I couldn’t stop crying,” she said. “At the same time, it was closure. I’m going to live the way I want to, and my wedding was proof of that.”

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