From its very inception, Israel has been both a Jewish and a democratic state. While every Israeli citizen has equal rights under the law regardless of his religion, national origin or gender, Israel’s Jewish identity has always been strongly felt here. The Star of David is proudly displayed on Israel’s flag. A gigantic menorah stands outside of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament building. The menorah also is the state’s emblem. The Declaration of Independence references the “prophets of Israel.”
Furthermore, the Basic Laws of Israel following the passage of the Nation State Law under the Netanyahu government proclaim, “The State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People, in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination. The Right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
Israel’s Jewish character has always played a pivotal role in everyday life in Israel. Every Jewish child in Israel studies the Torah in school, even if they attend a secular school. In Israel, the buses, schools and trains close on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Furthermore, it is against the law to force any worker to break the Jewish sabbath or holiday and any Jew who lives anywhere in the world has the right to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, gaining instantaneous citizenship.
Whenever someone wants to get married in Israel, it must be under the guidance of an Orthodox rabbi, priest, imam, Druze spiritual leader, Bahai spiritual leader, etc. There is no civil marriage in Israel and non-Orthodox Jewish weddings are only recognized if they are followed by a civil ceremony abroad. Thus, maintaining Israel’s Jewish character has always been a fundamental value for the State of Israel.
It should be stressed that Israel’s strong Jewish character has helped the nation to fight against all the threats that it faces, from the pandemic to Iran and its proxies to the Palestinian Authority. A strong sense of Jewish unity creates camaraderie among soldiers serving in the IDF and it teaches the nation’s children biblical ethics and values.
For this reason, the homicide rate in Israel is relatively low compared to other countries, Israel does not witness shoot-outs in its schools and the looting that occurred in Israel during the pandemic was a fraction of what happened in America and other countries, which for quite some time have not taught their high school students any sort of ethics course because of the strong “separation of church and state.” Indeed, preserving Israel’s Jewish character has helped Israel to be a “light unto the nations” during a very dark period in world history, as our faith has always inspired us to do the moral and right thing.
However, Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana wants to change all of this. The first phase of a major kashrut reform by Kahana took effect this week. In the framework of this reform, any restaurant, food store or factory can choose from local religious councils across the country to supervise kashrut. And a series of private agencies that will oversee kashrut will be established. Up until now, only the Chief Rabbinate could issue kashrut certificates. But thanks to this reform, there will be many institutes that can now do so.
Kahana praised this reform in a recent Facebook post, claiming that it will “march the kashrut system forward toward better, more organized and more supervised kashrut. The option of every city rabbi via a religious council to provide kosher certificates in every area of Israel opens the kashrut market to competition. This will lead to better, more serious, more meticulous and more convenient service to business owners.” Kahana also wants to make it easier for people of Jewish ancestry to convert to Judaism.
It should be stressed that both policy initiatives are supported by the New Israel Fund, a radical left-wing group that finances many anti-Israel organizations in the State of Israel. The New Israel Fund would prefer it if Israel were a “state for all citizens” and not a “Jewish state.” For this reason, they are supporting Kahana’s conversion and kashrut reforms.
As the New Israel Fund stated in a recent press release, “The NIF community views the new Conversion Law promoted by Israel’s Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana as a very small step in the right direction.”
A few years ago, the New Israel Fund stated the following in a press release:
“The Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on kashrut (Jewish dietary law) certification costs the Israeli economy about $770 million per year, adding about five percent annually to the cost of food production. Breaking this monopoly would be a victory not only for religious freedom, but for the Israeli economy as well.”
Indeed, it is precisely because groups like the New Israel Fund support these initiatives that prominent figures like Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau oppose Kahana’s initiatives. Rabbi Lau stated in a recent letter to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that these reforms are “part of a dangerous trend” of planned reforms to the conversion system that will cause “a significant rift among the Jewish people” and would require future generations to deal with the question of “who is a Jew.” The chief rabbi called the conversion plan “a spiritual disaster and serious injury to Judaism in the State of Israel.”
As for kashrut, a group of Israel’s leading rabbis, including the head of the Shas Rabbinical Council and leading Orthodox spiritual leader Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, issued an open letter reading:
“The measures amount to the destruction and devastation in the walls and sanctity of kashrut. Their sole desire is to sow divisions among the rabbis of Israel by tempting rabbis to give kashrut certification in places other than where they reside, causing jealousy and a contest of one against his fellow, which will lead to the complete destruction of the entire system of kashrut in Israel, whose end none can foretell.”
Regarding the conversion reforms, these rabbis proclaimed in their joint letter that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is “the destroyer of religion, who has risen in evil to commit iniquities, attempt to uproot the foundations of faith in the Land of Israel and permit the conversion of hundreds of thousands of gentiles against the way of the Holy Torah, to harm the vineyard of the House of Israel and the sanctity of lineage by severe and horrible assimilation leading to extinction.”
Interestingly, Ayoob Kara, who served as Netanyahu’s Communication, Satellite and Cyber Minister, agrees with the rabbis that these reforms are not good, and he says this as a member of the Druze faith:
“The Jewish faith in Israel is in a bad situation now. Bennett gave the position of minister to some guy who wants to do a compromise with the left side. He is in the position but he cannot stay in his position if he does not compromise on different things that serves as the basics of the Jewish faith. That means that Kahana is going for the leftist vision, and they use Bennett. Thus, Israel will become more for all the citizens, not the Jews. This is the policy I see objectively as a Druze in Israel. This is very dangerous, as the position of Minister of Religion is important for the future Israel as a Jewish state. Thus, Israel will develop into a state where the Jewish religion is not dominant. Israel will then stop to be a Jewish state.”
For all who care about the future of the State of Israel, the weakening of Jewish identity here poses a major threat to the very foundations of our existence here.
The famous Soviet Jewish dissident Nathan Sharansky once said:
“Identity and freedom are not enemies. To the contrary, they must be allies. If you don’t have a strong identity, you will not be able to defend your freedom. Identity without freedom becomes totalitarian and fundamentalist, but freedom without identity is decadent, weak and meaningless, and that is why I am against the great dream of John Lennon: imagine a world without religions, without nations, a world where there is nothing to die for. If there is nothing to die for, you will not be able to defend your freedom.”
For this reason, Minister Kahana’s kashrut and conversion reforms are non-starters, as they will lead on a slippery slope to the erosion of Israel’s identity as a Jewish state and thus to the erasure of the values that all of us hold dear.