Big Brother and the rabbinate

The rabbinate’s new database of Jewishness is already being abused and has the potential to undermine the Jewish character of Israel.

Soldiers from the African Hebrew Israelite community  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Soldiers from the African Hebrew Israelite community
(photo credit: REUTERS)
After a hearing in the Knesset last week, I would like to propose that every worker in the Religious Affairs Ministry receive a copy of George Orwell’s 1984. If they were to read it (and understand it), perhaps the future of Jewish life in Israel would look more positive.
Last week, a meeting in the Knesset regarding the rabbinate’s kashrut standards slowly deteriorated to a brouhaha about who is a Jew. The rabbinate maintains a policy (I prefer not to address the halachic merits of this policy in this context) that it will not issue a kashrut certificate to an establishment where a non-Jew has unmediated access to food preparation. Essentially, the rabbinate hangs a proverbial sign in every kitchen which says “non-Jews not welcome.”
This policy has, until recently, prevented foreign workers such as Eritreans from being cooks or even serving food from the kitchen. But recently, the policy has taken a remarkable shift: it has been extended to preventing immigrants from the Former Soviet Union (and other countries) from receiving employment in food establishments.
The same population which was once persecuted for being too Jewish is now persecuted for not being Jewish enough.
As an aside, I would argue that the discrimination against immigrants from the FSU (and now, their children) is collateral damage from the Israeli government’s indecisive approach to conversion.
Had Israel taken the conversion issue seriously, the immigrants from the FSU would now be full citizens. Instead, the inaction of the Israeli government – which even to this day manages to only convert less than a fifth of the growing population of immigrants who made aliya as Jewish but are not recognized as such by the rabbinate – has not only created an anomaly where thousands of Jews cannot be married in Israel, but has also reached the absurd point where they cannot be employed in certain establishments.
But this doesn’t have to do with 1984.
In the context of the Knesset hearing, the question of “how do you know someone is Jewish” was put to the Religious Affairs Ministry. Unabashedly, the representative of the Carmiel (where some 40% of the population are immigrants from the FSU) religious council said that the prospective worker is asked to present his or her identity number and then it is run against the “Shirat Hayam” national marriage registry. “The worker isn’t spoken to,” said the representative.
“The regulations say that the person with authority to look at this information” is charged with checking if the worker is Jewish. If someone isn’t certified by the rabbinate as Jewish, the establishment may be denied a kashrut certificate.
The Shirat Hayam registry is a relatively new phenomenon. It has only been in use for about two years, and was meant to ease the registration process for couples whose parents were married in Israel by making their parents’ ketubot, or Jewish marriage contracts, accessible. This in turn would allow the rabbinate to register couples for marriage without them having to produce additional paperwork (letters of Jewishness, etc).
But what is abundantly clear is that the Shirat Hayam registry – which by plan will be adopted by all of the local religious councils within the coming year or two – is essentially a tool meant to track everyone’s status.
What’s even worse is that the information in the Shirat Hayam system extends well beyond whether you are registered as a Jew. It also identifies whether there was ever a conversion, divorce or adoption in your family, whether questions related to your personal status have ever been raised by a rabbinical court, or whether you have ever been married before. And all of this information is available to a clerk, who – going unchecked – is using it for purposes that you never agreed to or that were never intended. Indeed, Big Brother is here and he is sitting at the desk of your local religious council.
The evidence provided by the testimony in the Knesset highlights the fact that the rabbinate has launched a campaign to weed out anyone who has struggled to prove his or her Jewishness (and perhaps those who haven’t yet bothered). The information in the system is already – after two years – being abused, and it’s clear that this is only the beginning.
Databases which contain personal information about all of us are dangerous in the hands of criminals, but they might even be more dangerous in the hands of ideologues who believe that it is acceptable to use the information to advance their agenda. I’m worried about people stealing our personal information from the rabbinate’s database, but I’m even more worried about those who have access to it already.
The most intriguing part of 1984 and the fact that “Big Brother is watching” is that everyone goes about their business as if this is a good thing for society.
The rabbinate’s new database is helpful, but at present is being mishandled and ultimately, if it isn’t reigned in, Jewish status in Israel will threaten the State of Israel itself.
The author is the director of ITIM ( and the rabbi of Kehillat Netivot in Ra’anana.