By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
The tensions within Israeli Orthodoxy are growing. In addition to the by now constant struggle by many Orthodox women to be recognized by the men in charge, the new tensions include the licensing of restaurants and the admission of non-Jews.
For some time, a number of restaurants, no less kosher than others, have sought independent supervision in protest against the way the official rabbinate and its employees handle such matters. There’re complaints about excessive bureaucracy and hints of corruption.
More recently, a group of prominent Orthodox rabbis have decided to arrange their own conversions in protest against the delays and other difficulties (corruption?) caused by the official rabbinate. Again, the criteria for acceptance of “the rebels” aren’t more lax, but they’re said to be more humane and take into consideration the 300 000 or so Israelis, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who were recognized as Jews by the state to give them immigrant status but aren’t recognized as Jews by the rabbinate for the purpose of marriage, burial, etc.
There’re also efforts to license rabbis who can perform marriages in Israel in ways that exclude local clergy who may be more lenient, perhaps by being closer to the families whom they’re likely to know personally and care for.
You don’t have to be much of a skeptic to predict that these efforts are likely to fail. The kashrut licensing has already done so and the conversion issue may go the same way because the coalition agreement with the two ultra-Orthodox parties (Yahadut Hatorah and Shas) is bound to protect the status quo, however iniquitous it may seem.
The prime minister may not care much for kashrut or conversion according to Jewish law, but he does care for his coalition and, therefore, is likely to yield.
When Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu was in the government, Netanyahu may have had some counterweight to the Orthodox pressure, because Lieberman is aggressively secular and very much concerned with the 300 000 potential voters whom the rabbinate has put in limbo. But Lieberman is now himself in opposition limbo lashing out against the prime minister at every opportunity.
The current dominant force in the government is Naftali Bennett and his Habayit Hayehudi, no more politically liberal than the ultra-Orthodox but, unlike them, very nationalist and ostensibly “modern.” The rabbis who’ve challenged the establishment on conversion are likely to belong to his side. There’s already a serious power struggle within the cabinet between Bennett and Netanyahu; it remains to be seen whether the administration of Jewish law will be part of the ammunition.
Reform Jews shouldn’t expect any benefits from the tug-of-war because both sides will be anxious to assure the public that, unless it follows them and them only, Reform Jews and other renegades will have an advantage. Bennett, in his role as minister for Diaspora affairs, even tried to interfere with Jews outside of Israel in a complicated scheme no doubt to benefit his side. The Jewish Agency, representing and caring for Diaspora Jewry, has now distanced itself from this allegedly joint scheme.
In the end, these internal struggles may cause Prime Minister Netanyahu more harm than his continued quixotic efforts to challenge the president of the United States.