Israelis for Pope Francis, against their own Chief Rabbinate

If the present status quo – which gives a monopoly to the Chief Rabbinate and its courts – continues, the gap between Israel and Diaspora Jewry will continue to grow toward disastrous proportions.

January 1, 2015 21:44
3 minute read.

Pope Francis waves during his Sunday Angelus prayer in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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According to the latest PEW research on attitudes relating to Pope Francis, Christian and especially Catholic countries top the list of favorable views of the head of the Catholic Church. But which non-Christian country comes on top of the non-Christian countries? It is Israel, with an approval rate of 50 percent (and 25 disapproval rate) in contrast with a 14% approval rate in the Palestinian territories. Only South Korea, which is partially Christian, outranks Israel in this list.

As Arab Christians constitute a tiny minority in the country, it must be assumed that the favorable opinion of Pope Francis is shared by half the Jewish population. Of course, this view is influenced by the Pope’s well known liberal and philo-Semitic views, but nevertheless it is amazing, given past history, that the head of the Holy See is seen so favorably by so many Israeli Jews.

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And what is more amazing is that this view is contrasted by a very unfavorable view of the Chief Rabbinate – the supreme Orthodox Jewish body of Israel. In a poll conducted for Ynet in December 2013 by Geo-Cartography among Israeli Jews, 67% were against the continued existence of the rabbinate and the same percentage appears in the poll conducted by Smith Consulting in July 2013 for the Hidush Reformist association as a opposing the Rabbinate’s monopolistic powers.

In a plethora of public opinion polls – including those initiated by the German Friedrich Nauman Stiftung – there is a substantial majority for a liberal, pluralistic regime in all matters of state and religion. In the Smith polls, there is even a consistent majority of 56% favoring recognition of same-sex marriages.

This amazing contrast between Israeli public opposition to Orthodox Jewish views and the de facto state of affairs is a significant feature of Israeli society.

There is one aspect of this cleavage which is of special interest. Objective observers will note the growing chasm between the views of the Israeli establishment and those of Diaspora Jews.

This is obvious from the report recently published by the Jewish People Policy Institute written by Shmuel Rosner and Avi Gil after they conducted a series of meetings with leaders of Jewish communities in the Diaspora: “We found a cross-denominational dissatisfaction with Israel’s rabbinate.


To a lesser extent, but still widespread, we also found dissatisfaction with the status of non-Orthodox Jewish streams in Israel, which included sharp criticism of Israel’s marriage and conversion laws. In our seminars, participants in almost all locations were disinclined to see any suggestion of religious legislation as an acceptable form of expressing Israel’s ‘Jewishness’.... Most Jews want few if any laws regulating Shabbat, beyond the law designating Shabbat as the official day of rest. Most seem reluctant to accept laws regulating dietary restrictions.”

Furthermore, in a recent American Jewish Committee Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion, 43% of respondents supported a separation of religion and state in Israel, and 25% more supported the view that religion should play less of a role in Israel’s life.”

Herein lies the paradox: When you contrast American Jewish opinion with the Israeli political establishment, the gap seems to be unbridgeable and widening – never the twain shall meet; but when you examine public opinion polls, the gap narrows down and almost disappears.

The recent Pew research poll is one of the many signs indicating a new reality: a gap exists not between American and Israeli Jews, but between Israeli Jews and their political leadership; i.e. the Knesset and the government.

Can this gap continue endlessly? We actually don’t know, because Israeli political agendas are determined by existential issues of war and peace as well by a totally proportional system which gives disproportionate power to Orthodox “swing” parties.

We do know one thing: If the present status quo – which gives a monopoly to the Chief Rabbinate and its courts – continues, the gap between Israel and Diaspora Jewry will continue to grow toward disastrous proportions.

The writer is a professor at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a former minister of education and Knesset member, as well as the recipient of the 2006 Israel Prize in Law.

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