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When Rabbis Give Israel A Black Eye
Mon, 12/13/2010 - 19:00

Perhaps the only positive aspect of the religious ruling made last week by 39 prominent rabbis in Israel — some of whom are state employees — banning the sale or rental of homes to non-Jews, aimed primarily at Arabs, was the major backlash against it. A number of Israeli colleagues and more than 750 diaspora rabbis, mostly from the U.S., spoke out against the ban as discrimination and, in the words of the diaspora petition, “a painful distortion of our tradition.”

The fact that so many rabbis have pointed out that Jewish law requires treating Jews and others equally is encouraging, but the ruling that prompted their response is an embarrassment to Israel and to all Jews who look to rabbinic leaders for moral as well as religious guidance.

Unfortunately, the proposed halachic ban is symptomatic of a disturbing and growing trend in Israeli society that finds an increasingly intolerant strain among those whose power reaches well beyond the haredi community to all of Israeli society, thanks to their political clout.

A prime example is the latest chapter in the long, confusing and controversial saga over conversion. A new piece of proposed legislation by David Rotem, a Knesset member from Yisrael Beiteinu, the party made up primarily of Jews from the former Soviet Union, seeks to uphold the legitimacy of conversions performed by the rabbis of the Israeli Defense Forces. Although the IDF rabbis are approved by the Chief Rabbinate, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has not fully endorsed the legitimacy of these conversions — 890 this year — primarily of Jews of Russian lineage serving in the army. Rotem, whose proposed legislation on a wide-scale conversion bill is still under review, is seeking to loosen the grip of the Chief Rabbinate on the IDF conversions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been holding urgent meetings this week, trying to negotiate a compromise between two key parties in his coalition, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Shas, the religious party seeking to maintain the Chief Rabbinate’s authority.

The reality is that an internal political power play over conversion could bring down the government, reflective of the increasing authority wielded by the religious parties in general and Shas in particular.

What is deeply disturbing, if not tragic, is that the Chief Rabbinate has, in effect, been hijacked by religious extremists in recent years, becoming more and more insular and parochial. The result has been to turn Israelis against religious authority, which is more than a shame. Secular, non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox Jews have lost respect for the institution, and its only champions are fervently Orthodox Jews who have cynically succeeded in undermining the office.

What’s needed, short-term, is to remove the conversion issue from the realm of politics. Seth Farber, an Orthodox rabbi whose noteworthy group, Itim, advocates for those seeking marriages, divorces and funerals in Israel, notes that the Chief Rabbinate is “a political post, not a religious one.” His group is suing the Chief Rabbinate in the Supreme Court over the rabbinate’s treatment of converts.

In the meantime, the unhealthy mix of religion and politics continues to embarrass world Jewry and jeopardize the stability of Israeli society.

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Can't Israel just kick all those religious fanatics and ultra-orthodox Jews who hate Israel anyway out of the land and into a country like e.g. Iran?
Many observant people take issue with some of the more controversial decisions of the Rabbinate and charedie rabbis regarding issues affecting all jews, but it seems to me that when criticizing them, one should have their facts in order and not be selective in reporting them, particularly when using facts to make a point. Last week, in an op/ed piece titled "A U.N. Plan for Israel" by Robert Wright, a NY Times opinionator columnist,, it was argued that the UN should determine the borders between Israel and Palestine. A part of his argument was that "last week the chief rabbis in dozens of Israeli municipalities — who get government salaries — decreed that landlords shouldn’t rent to non-Jews". His op/ed piece neglected to mention that the day following publication of the letter by 50 rabbis supporting their colleague, the chief rabbi of tzaft, "some of the most important [charadie] rabbis in Israel stated that the statement was contrary to Jewish law and should not be followed. Included in this list of rabbis were some who had refused to sign the statement in the first place. Ha’aretz, Israel’s leading left-wing newspaper, reported that Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, head of Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox establishment and one of the most influential rabbis in Israel, slammed the controversial ruling..." See, my comment to Mr. Wright's piece at Similarly, your editorial neglected to mention that Haaretz reported that the IDF's Chief Rabbi, Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz, wrote to "Rabbi Haim Druckman, the head of the national Conversion Authority, [stating] ... that there was no need for the Military Conversion Law and the 'military rabbinate should be the long arm of the Chief Rabbinate. For the soldiers' own good, the conversion [process] should not be split.'" It seems that Jewish Week is taking a position contrary to that of the IDF itself. Over the past four years that i have lived in Jerusalem, there have been many opportunities for modern orthodox and secular communities to unite in opposition to rulings of Rabbinate and charedie rabbis, including some in which American modern orthodox rabbis capitulated (i.e., who is a legitimate orthodox rabbi). Unfortunately, you went to war over two nonexistent battles. As noted in my comment to Mr Wright's article "[it] is always interesting to read an opinion based on half truths; but when someone only tells part of the truth, he is also telling lies." Perhaps your next anti-charedi editorial will get the facts right. it will make for a much stronger argument.
The fervently Orthodox are not cynical. They opposed all the conversion schemes put forth in the past two decades for a very simple reason. The Haredim were listening for Ruth the Moabite but all they heard was Chamor the Hivite. You editorial is no exception.