February 2019 | Pluralism Update

Quarterly iRep Update On Key Issues Relating To Religion And State In Israel

Volume 10, February 2019

This Religion and State Update covers the period from November 2018 - February 2019.


The Kotel (Western Wall)

In November 2018, the Conference of European Rabbis agreed that rabbis from Israel will not conduct conversions in Europe. In addition, the CER has adopted a policy that they will not recognize the conversions conducted by independent, Orthodox rabbinical courts in Israel. This decision will mostly affect the new liberal leaning Orthodox private conversion initiative “Giyur K’halacha” that was founded in 2015 by mainstream Religious Zionist (Orthodox) Rabbis, including Rabbi David Stav and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.

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In December 2018, the Jerusalem Planning district committee held several meetings to discuss the request from the Prime Minister’s office for a building permit to begin the planned renovations to the egalitarian prayer plaza at the Robinsons’ Arch area of the Western Wall. These efforts are part of PM Netanyahu’s promise to build a new pluralistic prayer plaza at the Western Wall, despite the failure of the Kotel agreement. In January 2019, the committee decided to reject the request on technical grounds. The committee directed the PM office to file a new request with the Jerusalem Municipality, but no such request has been filed at present. The Supreme Court finished hearing the petition protesting the absence of an area for mixed prayer at the Western Wall and a decision should be forthcoming.

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Marriage and Divorce

In February, iRep grantee Ne`emanei Torah Ve`Avodah initiated a campaign to create a state-recognized form of civil union for couples who are unable to marry in Israel according to the current marriage laws. Two Orthodox municipal rabbis (who are also in charge of marriage in their respective cities) joined the campaign. They argue that granting official recognition for civil unions will introduce more transparency about such weddings and will help preserve the integrity of the Jewish people in Israel. In addition, they see the right to an official marriage as a civil right that a democratic state like Israel must guarantee to all its citizens.   

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In January 2019, the Ministry of Religious Affairs published data showing that the number of Israeli Jews marrying through the Chief Rabbinate declined in 2018, for the second consecutive year. According to the report, 35,163 Jewish couples registered to marry through the Rabbinate in 2018, a drop of 6.2 percent from the previous year, which follows a drop of 4.7 percent in 2017. The Religious Affairs Ministry attributed the decrease to several factors: a higher average marriage age, an increase of couples that prefer to live together without getting married, and the iRep-funded “Hatuna Shava” campaign, encouraging Israelis to choose a private wedding ceremony outside of the Rabbinate. In February 2019, the Central Bureau of Statistics published data supporting the claim that there are more couples living together without being married. Their data shows that there was a 6% increase in 2018, with 88,000 such couples recorded, the vast majority with at least one Jewish partner.

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In November 2018, the Knesset rejected a bill to eliminate criminal sanctions against Rabbis who perform marriages outside the Chief Rabbinate. Under the existing law, passed in 2013, couples that wed in such ceremonies and the individuals who officiate them could face a two-year jail term for not registering the marriage with the Rabbinate. To date, only one such investigation was opened, the infamous case against the Conservative Rabbi Doubi Hayun; but the Attorney General immediately closed it. Although the criminal sanction is largely theoretical, organizations report that it deters wedding officiants and couples from pursuing an Orthodox wedding outside of the Rabbinate.

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In February, a private Orthodox Beit Din annulled another marriage, freeing a third woman from a defunct marriage. A panel of three Rabbis ruled that the woman agreed to marry under false pretenses, and that it is a legitimate reason to annul the marriage. State Rabbinical courts have not been willing to employ the existing halachic tools to release women from chained marriages. In this case, they did not provide a solution, so she was forced to go to a private Beit Din. The Rabbinic court will probably not recognize the verdict and will still consider her married. However, the annulment is recognized by a wide spectrum of Orthodox rabbis in Israel.

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Equality for the Streams

In November 2018 Rabbi Hayun, a Conservative Rabbi arrested earlier that year for performing private marriage ceremonies, was appointed deputy mayor of Haifa in November. He is the first non-Orthodox rabbi to serve in an Israeli local government.

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A poll conducted in December 2018 found that 50% of Israeli Jews support the idea of state-funded religious services for non-Orthodox denominations. The poll, conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, also found that 56% support non-Orthodox denominations having the ability to offer their own religious services to the general public.

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In January Ron Kobi, the new mayor of Tiberias, elected largely due to his views on religion and state, initiated a free bus service in the city on Shabbat. He explained that the move would enable families to enjoy the Kinneret’s Promenade on their free day.  

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In February, the Labor party initiated a free Shabbat public bus service in Rishon Le`Zion as part of their elections campaign, placing public transportation on Shabbat as one of their core issues. However, the Central Elections Committee barred the campaign, ruling it constituted a gift to voters. In response, the Labor party declared that it will continue to advocate for public transportation on Shabbat after the elections. Find out on more elections developments in the final section of this report.

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In February, the Tel Aviv municipality resumed construction of the pedestrian bridge over the Ayalon highway. In August 2018 the Minister of Transportation, Yisrael Katz halted the planned construction, because it required work on Shabbat. At the time, Ultra-Orthodox parties threatened a coalition crisis if there was construction on Shabbat, and in response the minister halted the construction for 6 months. Now, the Attorney General announced that the State permits the construction to continue. 

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National Elections

In December 2018, Israel’s government called for early elections to take place on April 9 2019. As always under the Israeli system, the public will elect all 120 members of the Knesset. For more information about Israeli elections, you can read this elections guide. Since the elections were called, there have been several developments in how Religion and State issues are influencing the political arena. Ordinarily, it is not the most important issue for voters, but several parties have already announced their positions on issues like religious pluralism and religious freedom.

Here are the main developments:

  • Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked left the “Jewish Home” religious party and formed a new party called “The New Right”, which they define as a right wing party based on a secular-religious partnership. When asked their position on issues of religion and state, Shaked and Bennet said they will adopt the “Gavison Medan Covenant” with modifications. The Gavison-Medan Covenant was drafted in 2002 by law professor Ruth Gavison and Orthodox Rabbi Yaakov Medan in an attempt to offer a new secular-religious agreement to replace Ben Gurion’s historic “Status Quo” agreement. However, Shaked said that the New Right would still oppose civil marriage and other important tenets of the covenant. This statement created a lively discourse on the covenant, its relevance in contemporary Israeli society, and how the facts on the ground are shaping a new “status quo” different from the Gavison-Medan covenant. 
  • Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the “Yisrael Beitenu” party, which caters primarily to Russian speaking Israelis, started its election campaign with banners attacking Hammas, Tibi (the Israeli Arab Knesset member) and the Ultra-Orthodox. This signaled that his campaign would incorporate security and religious freedom as the two main themes.
  • As mentioned earlier, in February, the Labor party initiated a free Shabbat public bus service in Rishon Le`Zion as part of their elections campaign, placing public transportation on Shabbat as one of their core issues. However, the Central Elections Committee barred the campaign, ruling it constituted a gift to voters. In response, the Labor party declared that it will continue to advocate for public transportation on Shabbat after the elections. 
  • Former IDF Chief of Staff Beny Gantz, now leader of the Israeli Resilience Party, gave his first political speech at the end of January 2018. In the speech, he referred to several issues of religion and state, expressing support for implementing the Kotel agreement, legislation in favor of civil unions, public transportation on Shabbat, and a commitment to fight discrimination and exclusion of women in Israeli society. Gantz’s positions on religious freedoms were not surprising, but many were surprised that he included them in his inaugural speech. 

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