‘We need religious freedom’


V Israel is the only Western country where Jewish people do not experience religious freedom.

So says Yizhar Hess, chief executive of Israel’s Masorti movement, who is on a mission to end the “monopoly” Orthodox rabbis have over life in Israel.

Mr Hess has been in London to raise awareness of the contentious issue. In an interview with the JC, he said: “When the country was established, David Ben Gurion needed the support of the ultra-Orthodox movement and for that he was willing to make concessions and give them the keys to Jewish identity.

“He later acknowledged that that was a mistake.”

According to Mr Hess, 7.1 per cent of Israeli Jews define themselves as Masorti or Reform. The two strands have long worked together with secular activists to affect change.

Marriage is key to their efforts. He said: “You can be a rabbi of a congregation of 3,000 people in London, but if you’re not Orthodox your marriage cannot be performed in Israel.

“This is challenging from a democratic point of view and harms the Zionist nature of Israel. Israel should be, and is, the home of all Jewish people.”

Many travel overseas to tie the knot, in particular to Cyprus and the Czech Republic. “So the clerk of the municipality in Larnaka has the authority to be recognised in Israel but a rabbi to millions does not,” said Mr Hess.

“It is simply unacceptable that a young couple cannot choose how they want to be married in a state they serve and pay taxes to.”

Masorti Judaism believes “the halachah should not be frozen in time but should develop over time”.

Central to that is the Kotel, whose status as an Orthodox-dominated prayer area was under negotiation for four years. In January 2016, an agreement was reached to create a new egalitarian space on the southern flank of the Kotel, but the arrangement has not been implemented and this year came under threat from bills introduced by Orthodox parties in the Knesset.

“The Israeli government passed this historic resolution but didn’t have the courage to implement it due to the severe pressure from the Charedi parties,” said Mr Hess. “In many ways it’s a spit in the face of so many Jews.”

The matter will be decided upon in Israel’s Supreme Court in June.

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