A shop selling Christmas decorations in the Old City..
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Christmas is around the corner, and while not many associate it with the ongoing saga of religion/ state relations, it should serve as an important reminder of the battle to realize Israel’s founding promises of religious freedom and equality. This season, there will again be many thousands of Christians visiting Jerusalem, staying in Jerusalem’s hotels for their sacred holiday. Whereas anywhere else in the free world they would be welcomed by holiday symbols, most commonly festively decorated Christmas trees, they will find none of these in Jerusalem’s hotels.
The tourism industry doesn’t intend any disrespect toward Christianity, but rather fears the wrath of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which threatens to revoke their establishments’ kosher certifications.
The Chief Rabbinate’s kashrut guidelines explicitly state: “Placing references to gentile holidays at the end of the secular year is not allowed.” Further examples of the rabbinate’s coercion are found in these official instructions under the title of “The Sanctity of Shabbat,” including the requirement that “events taking place on Sabbaths and holidays will not involve filming, photography and music,” that “payments shall not made, other than covertly by gentile cashiers,” and that “laundry and ironing rooms shall be closed on Sabbaths and Jewish holidays.”
These policies reflect both a deep hostility toward Christianity and non-Orthodox Judaism, as well as consistent efforts to expand the Chief Rabbinate’s religious reign, regardless of Israel’s laws. The rabbinate reigns by terror, rather than by example.
The rabbinate’s animosity toward Christianity was again demonstrated during Succot when the chief rabbis demanded that the authorities rescind the permit for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ) Prayer Vigil near the Old City’s Huldah Gates, culminating their annual multi-thousand person pilgrimage. The Chief Rabbinate’s call was titled “A Holy Appeal,” and it claimed that the Prayer Vigil aimed to “prevent true Jewish salvation” and that the organizers intended to “dig their claws into the Holy City and Land and cut off our Jewish brethren from the land of the living.”
These malicious mischaracterizations of this pilgrimage, which has been consistently hailed by Israel’s political leaders over the years for the ICEJ’s staunch support for the state, were amplified by other rabbinic authorities that fought to prohibit the prayer taking place near the Temple Mount, describing it as “ceremonies of idol worship ... attempting to establish a foothold in the Old City.”
The signatories’ religious sentiments are self-evident, for their pronouncement referred to the Prayer Vigil as “praying for ‘that person,’ ‘May the Name of the Wicked Rot,’ to reign over Jerusalem.” Despite Israel’s laws and repeated commitments to freedom of worship and the chief rabbis’ own hypocritical, self-congratulatory hailing of religious freedom as a core principle of Israel, during their historic meeting with the pope some months ago, the rabbinate’s inherent disdain for Christianity reared up again at the opportunity to deny such freedom to the Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem.
For the chief rabbis, the city rabbis and the yeshiva heads involved in this campaign, only Jewish freedom of worship bears defending (excluding of course the rights of non-Orthodox Jews and the Women of the Wall). Sadly, their vicious smear campaign succeeded, and the authorities instructed that the prayer vigil be moved elsewhere, citing “security reasons.” What security concerns warranted such drastic intervention? Clearly, this was not connected to terrorist threats, for no Jewish events were canceled or relocated during the week of Succot. So, was it about the rabbinate’s hate-filled, anti-Prayer Vigil incitement, which may have resulted in violence? If so, shouldn’t the police have protected the worshipers instead of rewarding the bullies? Regretfully, the “Hecklers’ Veto” prevailed, much to our collective discredit.
This perpetual battle is also manifested in the assault on Christian worshipers who wish to pray in the Room of the Last Supper, and in the repeated reports of spitting, harassment and assaults on Christian clergy in Jerusalem.
While the prohibition against displaying non-Jewish symbols reflects the rabbinate’s anti-gentile bias, it also represents its religious imperialism, made possible by the monopolistic authority invested in it by the Knesset in the narrow realm of kashrut certification. However, it was never authorized to enforce additional religious restrictions. Article 11 of the Kosher Fraud Law explicitly states that “in granting the kosher certificate the rabbi will consider only the laws of kashrut.” Repeated Supreme Court rulings further instructed that “the purpose of the law is solely to deal with the kashrut of food products, and not with whether the facility conducts itself according to Halakha [Jewish law] in respect to anything unconnected to the kashrut of the [food] products served or sold in it.”
In fact, the Court explicitly alluded to Sylvester (the New Year) parties, placing Christmas trees and playing music on Shabbat, rejecting the notion that such acts may serve as a basis for denying kosher certification. Having turned to the attorney general and the Ministry of Religious Services to challenge these illegal practices, I was promised months ago that the Chief Rabbinate was instructed to review their kashrut guidelines for hotels and event halls; but unsurprisingly it has yet to carry out those instructions, and the authorities continue dragging their feet. Regretfully, this may require us to turn to the Supreme Court on a matter that should have been long since resolved. The rabbinate’s imperialism is made possible by the reluctance of the authorities to confront it, as well as by its disregard for Israeli law and for the civil courts.
While I don’t celebrate Christmas or Sylvester, I stand by the right of others to celebrate their holidays without subjection to religious coercion and anti-gentile bias from Israel’s monopolistic rabbinate. Christmas in Jerusalem is another reminder of the critical need to fully realize Israel’s founding promise of religious freedom and equality. Doing away with the coercive rabbinate will not only strengthen democracy and civil liberties, but will allow Israel to become more Jewish by liberating creativity and diversity, and replacing a monochromatic distortion of Judaism with the richness of the Jewish rainbow. Hiddush is committed to making this vision come true.
In the coming months and following the Knesset elections, much debate will ensue over the Nation-State Basic Law. Those who support reinforcing Israel’s Jewish identity should also appreciate the dire consequences and negative image resulting from the rabbinate’s coercive anti-gentile, anti-secular, anti-pluralistic monopoly. International acceptance and global Jewish support for Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state must be founded upon respect for all faiths and an embrace of Jewish diversity, from its most ultra-Orthodox to its most secular manifestations. Otherwise, we risk nurturing an Israel that is “Jewish and theocratic,” rather than “Jewish and democratic.”
The author, a rabbi, heads Hiddush - Freedom of Religion for Israel