Rabbi Uri Regev is president and CEO of Hiddush-Freedom of Religion for Israel, a group founded in 2009 to promote religious liberty and equality in Israel. He was also a founding chair and executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center and president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. The Jewish Week spoke to him recently in a wide-ranging interview about Israel’s culture war between the secular and the religious and some of the issues surrounding it.
Jewish Week: There appears to be a growing number of fervently Orthodox or haredi Jews in Israel. Do the statistics support that view?
Uri Regev: The phenomenon of the shift within the Orthodox community is very clear. In 1980, 3 percent [of Israelis] identified themselves as haredi and 12 percent said they were Modern Orthodox. In 2008, 9 percent identified themselves as haredi and 10 percent identified themselves as Modern Orthodox. So the ultra-Orthodox are growing in numbers and percentage wise, and the Modern Orthodoxy are shrinking in comparison. It is already clear that the public, political voice of religious Judaism has transferred from Modern Zionist Orthodoxy to ultra-Orthodoxy, and they are the ones who control the selection of the chief rabbis and rabbinic judges.
How has this shift impacted the country?
Overall public opinion in Israel is still overwhelmingly in support of religious freedom, equality in shouldering the civic burden — that is, drafting yeshiva students to service, and cutting down subsidies for yeshiva students. Another strong majority in Israel support forcing the ultra-Orthodox to incorporate core curricula studies — math, sciences, English and civics — into their boys’ schools, which they refuse to do.
Has Modern Orthodoxy changed because of a shift to the religious right?
Modern Orthodoxy’s hallmark had been egalitarianism. [But] Bnei Akiva is the youth movement of Modern Orthodoxy and you will find that more and more in recent decades there has been a separation of boys and girls; they are pressured to separate in primary school. Soldiers who leave the hall when females sing is another indication of religious extremism or rigid observance.
So while there is a growing accommodation of modernity among some, there is a growing rejection of those values among others, as exemplified in the military and the youth movement’s clubs.
There is talk that a constitutional congress might be convened to write a constitution for Israel that would clearly spell out the powers of the Chief Rabbinate and the state. Do you think that would be a good approach?
The new government would have to split in order to do that because the haredi parties would not remain in the coalition. Our [Hiddush] slogan is ‘Israel needs a civil coalition,’ and the problem is that [Kadima leader Shaul] Mofaz is not the knight in shining armor who is going to rush into a religious freedom agenda.
Late last year, a fervently Orthodox man in Beit Shemesh spat on an 8-year-old Modern Orthodox girl for her “immodest” dress. Then in January, 250 women in Beit Shemesh protested gender segregation in public spaces. What’s going on?
What you are seeing is that within Beit Shemesh the battle is not so much between the secular and Orthodox but within Orthodoxy itself — between extreme, fervently religious groups and the traditional and Modern Orthodox who feel assaulted. The 8-year-old girl is from a religious home in Cleveland, and she is representative of a group who feel more threatened by growing religious fundamentalism than by secularism.
What can be done about the divide?
There were a number of people who said the only solution was for Beit Shemesh to split into two, with the Modern Orthodox and secular running their part and the ultra-Orthodox running theirs. But there was immediate opposition voiced by Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who is also the head of [the fervently Orthodox party] Shas.
Yishai said that if we separate the city, who is going to pay for the upkeep of the fervently religious? So possibly not intending to he let out the truth — we deal with a segment of the population that is financially dependent on the secular and Modern Orthodox to provide for their needs because they do not generate the income that would enable them to be self-sustaining.
Have there been repercussions from the spitting attack on the 8-year-old?
People’s memories are short. There was worldwide attention to it … but at this point it has fallen into more of a concern over the segregation of women altogether.
A case in point is the Puah Institute, an organization that deals with fertility issues. It holds an annual conference and over the last few years it has separated men and women in the audience by a screen and a male-only cast of speakers. At this year’s conference, with heightened attention to segregation of women, the public outrage over the refusal to include female doctors and researchers resulted in the ethics committee of the Israel Medical Association deciding that such segregation constitutes an ethical violation. As a result, most of the doctors who were invited pulled out at the last moment.
And in the army, the chief of staff and the head of human resources, who is the first woman to serve in a full-fledged general’s position, both declared that the army would not tolerate segregation of women in army events.
What do you see as some of your group’s achievements?
The unsolicited testimonials we receive serve as objective indicators of our achievements. Three come immediately to mind. First, Rabbi Arieh Deri, the former minister of interior, said we in the haredi community have a problem because Hiddush comes up with facts and figures and our old rhetoric won’t suffice.
Second, following the release of a report dealing with the socioeconomic protests [of last summer] that included a focus on the haredi community, haredi media wrote that the “committee adopted the Hiddush Torah.” It was referring to specific recommendations in the report. Among them was a call for the enforcement of a core curriculum for haredi boys’ schools, time limits on the length of [government] scholarships yeshiva students may receive, and requiring work as a condition for receiving housing subsidies.
Third, a staff person of mine is a graduate student in political science and when his adviser at the Hebrew University heard that he was working for Hiddush, he commented about how much the public discourse has accelerated over issues of religion and state in Israel as a result of Hiddush’s outreach.
And we clearly see our impact regularly in our interaction with policy makers, the media and our collaboration with the NGO [non-governmental] community.
I understand that you are involved in some court cases involving church-state issues. What is the nature of those cases?
There are pending cases that challenge the government’s discriminatory policies on such things as housing and the overall subsidies for yeshiva students.
What is the nature of those subsidies?
It has to do with the way the government attempts to continue subsidies for yeshiva students. We challenged the legality of that. The government backed off and is now trying another avenue. We are also challenging that approach as a member of a coalition of organizations.
How many yeshiva students receive government subsidies?
About 110,000. The amount they receive varies based on whether the student is married and the number of children he has. This is a subsidy that has been going on for decades.
How much money are we talking about?
The specific budget line for yeshivas is about $300 million. That incidentally is the same ballpark figure that is replenished by the charitable giving of the federation system to cover pressing socioeconomic needs in Israel.
But the actual amount of money supporting the yeshiva students is much greater because many indirect budget items — such as municipal allocations, a negative income tax, city tax discounts and nursery school discounts — must be added. So in effect we are talking of a number in the billions and billions of shekels that is enjoyed by that community. And the subsidies go on indefinitely.
How old are these students?
The median age in the haredi community is pretty young, so we are dealing for the most part with those in 20s and 30s.
Let me point out that in New York, yeshiva students marry, leave the yeshiva and find work — with the exception of excelling students who remain to study and teach. In Israel, the ideal has been created that a male should spend his life indefinitely at the yeshiva. That explains why in Israel only 38 percent of the male haredim work, compared with 80 to 90 percent of the haredi males in New York. And those subsidies go on indefinitely.
Israel’s supreme court has recently struck down the Tal Law, which grants fervently Orthodox yeshiva students an automatic exemption from military service. How do you view that ruling?
It will clearly be the first significant benchmark in Israel’s adoption of a more civil equality agenda, and it will be a test of the viability of the new coalition [which must find an alternative to the law].
The court called the Tal Law unconstitutional. Even though we do not have a constitution, we have constitutional law and the court held it unconstitutional because it is discriminatory.