Israel's issues on religion and state – return to status quo or a new era?

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: Since we don’t yet know what the government will do, what are the most dramatic clauses in the agreements, taken at face value?

 UKRAINIAN IMMIGRANTS are greeted by then-absorption minister Pnina Tamano-Shata (third right) upon their arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport in February. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
UKRAINIAN IMMIGRANTS are greeted by then-absorption minister Pnina Tamano-Shata (third right) upon their arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport in February.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

The coalition agreements that were signed this week include countless clauses related to religion in general, and religion and state in particular.

They range from new funding for an array of programs and institutions to promote Jewish identity; clauses about the status of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount; to cancellation of the previous government’s kashrut and “kosher cellphone” reform. And the list goes on.

Clauses in coalition agreements that don’t have defined numbers and dates are seldom translated into action, and even detailed plans often do not pan out. But since we don’t yet know what the government will do, what are the most dramatic clauses in the agreements, taken at face value?

Shlomit Ravitsky Tur-Paz, director of the Shared Society Center at the Israel Democracy Institute and one of the country’s leading experts on matters of religion and state, laid out her answer to this question in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.

According to Ravitsky Tur-Paz, the incoming coalition’s most dramatic implication is on the question of “Who is a Jew” – regarding conversion and the Law of Return.

 UTJ LEADER Yitzchak Goldknopf is setting the tone of the new government and religion and state in Israel. Will Benjamin Netanyahu give him everything?  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) UTJ LEADER Yitzchak Goldknopf is setting the tone of the new government and religion and state in Israel. Will Benjamin Netanyahu give him everything? (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The agreements call on the state to go back to the pre-2015 situation. In 2015, the High Court ruled that the state had to recognize independent conversion courts, whether Orthodox or any other denomination. The ruling came after years in which the court nearly begged the state to decide on the issue – but the legislature was unable or unwilling to do so, Ravitsky said.

The agreements, however, do not affect the decisions made in the 1980s to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions done abroad, in order to be careful not to anger Diaspora Jews, Ravitsky pointed out.

Since 2016, the official Chief Rabbinate-mandated conversion courts approved approximately 3,000 conversions per year, while the private courts oversaw another 3,000-plus conversions in total. This means the private conversion courts held nearly 600 a year, amounting to more than 15% of all conversions.

All data presented in this article are taken from a biannual report on religion and state authored by Ravitsky Tur-Paz, Ariel Finkelstein and Ayala Goldberg from the Israel Democracy Institute, which has not yet been published.

In Ravitsky Tur-Paz’s short historical brief of conversion in Israel, she explained that a High Court ruling in 1970 recognized the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as Jews.

The legislature responded in 1970 by enacting a law that struck a balance. On the one hand, we recognize for civil purposes anyone who has a Jewish grandparent as a kind of “Jewish descendant,” but on the other hand, according to traditional Jewish law, a Jew is only someone who is born to Jewish mother. This was meant as a trade-off.

The famous Prof. Ruth Gavizon-Rabbi Yaakov Medan Covenant also proposed a trade-off, albeit a slightly different one.

On one hand, it would shrink the Grandchild Clause so that it would demand from those who arrive via the Law of Return to fulfill a “preparation period,” and perhaps study Hebrew and swear allegiance to the state, but on the other hand, the state would recognize Reform and Conservative conversions carried out in Israel. This too, would strike a balance between the citizenship aspect and the religious aspect.

The incoming coalition’s philosophy is to shrink the definition on both ends. On the one hand, it wants to cancel the Grandchild Clause, and at the same time cancel non-Rabbinate conversions. This, instead of being a trade-off, would narrow the ability both to move to Israel and to become Jewish within the country, Ravitsky Tur-Paz said.

Many of the people who come to Israel but are not Jewish according to law still feel Jewish – more than 90%, according to data Ravitsky Tur-Paz quoted from the One Million Lobby, which acts on behalf of immigrants from the former USSR. Canceling the Grandchild Clause would be a slap in the face.

According to the IDI’s data, if in 1990 93% of people who made aliyah from the former USSR were Jewish, in 2015 that number fell to 42% and in 2020 to just 23.8%, which amounted to approximately 3,000 Jewish olim. The Rabbinate’s conversions conduct approximately 3,000 a year, and therefore if the downward trend in Jewish olim continues and private conversion courts are banned, the number of non-Jews making aliyah will eclipse the number of those converting, Ravitsky Tur-Paz explained.

Another motivation to change the law is to prevent taking advantage of aliyah benefits. The number of people who came and then left after a year or two after doubled in 2017, when the law was changed so that people received a passport and benefits immediately upon coming to Israel, instead of waiting a year with a temporary passport. This incentivizes people to take advantage of the option to receive citizenship – but the concept of the “interim passport” could be brought back without canceling the Law of Return, Ravitsky Tur-Paz said.

Another interesting aspect is agreement on the Left to diminish the Law of Return on the grounds that it discriminated against Arabs, who don’t have this same right.

However, there was widespread support from both the Left and the Right to leave the law as it is, Ravitsky Tur-Paz explained. On the Left, this comes from sociological grounds – a Jew can also be someone who identifies as such even if he is not Jewish according to Halacha. On the Right, there is also an incentive to keep things as they are for demographic reasons – people who come using the Grandchild Clause are not Arab and therefore tilt the demographic towards the Jewish majority.

The issue is therefore not as simple as a Right-Left divide, she said.

Public opinion

Public opinion is yet another factor. Some 70% of Jewish Israelis believe a person born to a non-Jewish mother is not Jewish, as opposed to 26% who do – and even approximately 50% of secular Jews in Israel do not believe that a person born to a non-Jewish mother is Jewish, versus 44% who do.

Forty-four percent of Israeli Jews do not believe that people who underwent non-Orthodox conversions are Jewish, versus 40% who do; while 69% of Israel’s Jews believe that people who underwent conversion in the IDF are indeed Jewish, versus 18% who do not believe so.

The second dramatic issue, according to Ravitsky Tur-Paz is surprising – the agreement for the state to fund regular burial plots for those who wish so.

The issue requires some explanation.

Israel currently has approximately 12,400 dunams set aside for burial. Regular burial enables 250 graves per dunam, leaving approximately three million spots. With Israel’s population approaching 10 million, this means that babies born today will have nowhere to be buried – unless the country sets aside more precious land for this purpose.

Add to this the fact that in Jewish law, burial spots are eternal and are not dug up after a certain period, and what you get is a coalition policy that chooses the dead over the living, the expert explained.

The state developed a number of methods in order to cope with this, under the title of “layered burial.”

These include familial graves, where families are buried in a deeper grave one over the other (600 per dunam); multi-tiered graves, which enables 750 graves per dunam; or “Sanhedrin burial,” which enables 1,300 graves per dunam.

Another innovative solution is called “bone-gathering,” whereby bones are collected a year after burial and are then put into a casing and reburied in a smaller plot. This could allow 3,500 plots per dunam, leaving room for over 150 million spots for current and future citizens. This was done during the post-Second Temple period, Ravitsky Tur-Paz explained, and is accepted by some religious-Zionist rabbis, but not by the Rabbinate, she explained.

The layered burial methods are offered for free, and until now regular burial was offered at a relatively high price. Canceling this will completely erase the incentive to agree to layered burial, and this could have dramatic implications for the future of Israel’s land reserves, Ravitsky Tur-Paz explained.

Although the Rabbinate approved the layered burial, the public’s attitude towards the idea is complicated. The ultra-Orthodox public nearly unanimously disapproves of layered burial, since it is still a change to usual burial practice; the secular public is far more open to it. Interestingly, people who define themselves as religious Zionist are more willing to use layered burial than people who define themselves as traditional, Ravitsky Tur-Paz said.

Religion and state will remain a contentious issue throughout the Knesset’s tenure – and issues of “who is a Jew” and burial are just the tip of the iceberg.