Women’s rights activists are furious at a decision by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to launch a public offensive against abortion.
Chief Rabbis Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar have written to all state-employed rabbis urging them to use their pulpits tomorrow to raise the issue, linking it to the Torah portion in which midwives in Egypt save Israelite babies in defiance of Pharaoh.
They claim in their letter that the “vast majority” of the abortions are “unnecessary” and “forbidden by Jewish law”, and argue that the situation “impedes the coming of the Messiah”.
Despite the public ouctry, their request to rabbis still stands, and a plan to strengthen a two-year-old Chief Rabbinate committee established to disseminate Orthodox views on abortion is still going ahead.
According to Jewish law, abortion is not permitted for economic or social reasons, but is permitted when continued pregnancy or birth could pose serious physical or psychological danger to the mother. Some rabbis also deem it permitted if a fetus has a serious illness like Tay Sachs or in cases of rape or incest.
Israeli law takes a more lenient view. Around 20,000 women apply for state-funded abortions and in 98 per cent of cases receive the necessary green light from a panel of doctors and social workers who consider their request. Common reasons given by the women include that they are unmarried, deem themselves too young or old to have a baby, or have evidence that their baby will have a physical or mental defect.
The Chief Rabbis and their sympathisers claim that the most common reason is actually economic and women just tell panels what they want to hear.
In addition to the legal abortions, both sides of the debate estimate that 30,000 women a year circumvent the panel and pay a doctor privately to terminate their pregnancy.
Irit Rosenblum, executive director of New Family, a non-profit organisation that opposes rabbinic involvement family affairs, called the Chief Rabbis’ offensive a “disgrace” designed to restore the taboo on abortion. As such she considers it a return “to medieval times” and “a kind of ayatollah-ism”.
Ms Rosenblum was particularly angry about Rabbi Metzger’s comments to the local media following the release of the letter, in which he indicated that he views confronting abortion to be part of Zionists’ demographic battle to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel.
This is a “cynical use of women’s bodies under the umbrella of Judaism”, she said.
Among Orthodox Israelis, some consider the Chief Rabbis’ campaign heroic.
“I agree completely with this letter,” said Dr Eli Schussheim, an Orthodox physician who heads Efrat, a charity that discourages women from aborting and which is singled out for praise in the letter.
Dr Schussheim dismissed the criticism that the Chief Rabbis are venturing outside their remit.
“This is pure, pure, pure Judaism — nothing connected to politics,” he said. “Life is the most huge thing in Judaism, more important than Shabbat, Yom Kippur and all these other things.”
Other Orthodox public figures have a less favourable view. While the Orthodox feminist movement Kolech did not take an official position on the campaign, chairwoman Rachel Keren said that personally she felt it is “irresponsible”.
Speaking about abortion is within the Chief Rabbis’ remit, she said, but the message “must be more complicated”.
‘I couldn’t afford the baby basics’
In February 2005, Mali Aharon of Netanya, then 29, became pregnant after sleeping with her ex-boyfriend. Unable to meet the cost of buying the basics for a baby, she considered an abortion.
According to Efrat, a charity that discourages women from aborting, her thinking is not unusual. Financial worry is the main factor that leads Israeli women to consider ending a pregnancy, and the global economic crisis is causing more women to abort their babies.
The Chief Rabbis have claimed that there is a nationwide “epidemic” of abortions — although Health Ministry figures released on Monday suggested that demand for abortion has actually dropped by 10 per cent between 2000 and 2008.
However, Efrat notes that the figures do not cover 2009, when the crisis really hit Israel. Efrat’s own statistics show a 15 per cent increase in women contacting it for financial support to enable them to go through with the pregnancy in 2009.
The Orthodox-run group supported 4,013 women last year, providing them with baby basics including a pushchair, a bath, a cot, nappies, formula milk if requested, and cash. Its social workers provided advice.
“There is a financial crisis and lots of people think that another baby will be very difficult,” says Efrat’s
head, Dr Eli Schussheim.
Assistant director Ruth Tidhar reports that around 65 per cent of people requesting help from Efrat are married, and some are middle class.
“In Israel we live to the very end of our income so if two people work and one loses their job it causes a real crisis.”
Some of the couples turning to them are even religious or strictly Orthodox.
Some critics consider Efrat to be promoting a reactionary agenda and take particular issue with its open admission of concern about the effect of abortions on the demographic balance between Jews and Arabs. But Dr Schussheim insists that it is progressive and “the highest level of feminism”. His group, he reasons, enables pregnant women “to make a decision with all the information and with support to carry through their decision.”
He also shuns the label “pro-life”, saying: “We are not pro-life, we are pro-choice after information”.
He adds: “We are not looking to change the law, but we are treating the main reason that people have abortions.”
Mali Aharon says that she “prefers not to think” about what would have happened to her were it not for Efrat. She received support from the organisation and went through with the pregnancy, alone.
After being “helped back on to my own two feet” by Efrat, last year she got back together with her ex-boyfriend.
The couple wed, and are now expecting a sibling for their first child, four-year-old Eyal. Both Mali and Amir are non-observant and say that there was no expectation that they became religious although Efrat is Orthodox-run and considers its work a religious undertaking.