Q&A with Rabbi Uri Regev: Pushing for religious equality in Israel

Rabbi Uri Regev

Rabbi Uri Regev is the founder and CEO of Hiddush, a nondenominational organization that advocates for religious pluralism in Israel. Rabbi Regev is in Toronto from April 25-29 to deliver a public lecture at Holy Blossom Temple. Rabbi Regev spoke to The CJN by telephone from Israel beforehand.

Can you tell us a bit about your organization?
Hiddush was founded in 2009. We launched it at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv. That’s where former Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion declared the state into being in 1948.

Hiddush is about the full implementation of Israel’s promise, in the Israeli Declaration of Independence, of freedom of religion and conscience, and full equality, regardless of religion.

In addition to that, Hiddush is of the view that the challenge of religious freedom and equality in Israel is a global Jewish challenge and requires a partnership between Israel and the Diaspora. That’s why I am so eager to visit Toronto to reach out to the Jewish community there.

Hiddush is a trans-denominational organization. We embrace, and have in our midst, rabbis and lay people from Orthodox, to unaffiliated, through Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal.

Hiddush focuses only on issues of religious freedom and equality, in order to cut across political lines and be able to enjoy the endorsement and support of both the political left and the right.

Its creation suggests that its founders feel Israel is falling short when it comes to the principles stated in its declaration of independence. Where is it falling short?
To illustrate how far we still are from the full implementation of the promise of religious freedom, over 600,000 Israeli citizens are denied the basic right to marry. Israel is the only Western democracy that denies its citizens the right to marry.

What is the mechanism in place that prevents Israelis from marrying? In Israel, the only legal marriage is a religious marriage – for Jews and non-Jews alike.
The only religious Jewish marriage that is recognized is one performed by an Orthodox rabbi under the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. That means that hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union whose mothers are not Jewish cannot marry because the rabbinate won’t marry them and there is no civil marriage.

It means that the children of every Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and modern Orthodox woman who converts to Judaism are unable to legally marry in Israel, even as they attain Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.

Reform and Conservative rabbis cannot officiate at marriages, there is no civil marriage and the Orthodox don’t recognize them as Jewish.

What were the other concerns that led to the formation of Hiddush?
The challenge of religion and state in Israel encompasses scores of issues, from security, to the economy, to gender equality, to marriage, to divorce, to who is a Jew, to agriculture, to Shabbat, to kashrut.

In every one of those issues, I can point out to you why Israel fails to implement that very basic founding promise of religious freedom and equality.

Does Hiddush see the separation of religion and state as a potential solution?
No. Nowhere do I or Hiddush advocate for a separation of religion and state. What we advocate for is the constitutional protection of the principal of religious freedom and equality.

In many ways, they are overlapping. But I don’t think that, for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, separation of religion and state is either necessary or desirable. And certainly the public is not as supportive of it as the promise of the full realization of religious freedom.

So what is the impediment to the full religious freedom that you are seeking?
The only ones who are preventing it from happening are the Israeli politicians. Israeli politicians on the left and the right have found it prudent to enter into deals with the Orthodox parties, selling them the values and principals of religious freedom, in return for their votes.

This is particularly clear when you look at Hiddush’s systematic polling of public opinion in Israel, which consistently, and without exception, shows that the overwhelming majority of Israelis support the values of religious freedom and equality.

Is Hiddush’s agenda limited to Jews’ religious freedoms? What about Christians, Muslims, people of other religions and secular Israelis?
To Hiddush, religious freedom and equality means religious freedom and equality for all. Certainly not only for Jews and certainly not only for religious Jews. The rights of Muslim and Christian citizens of Israel are very much part of what we envisage as the implementation of that principle. On occasion, we have the opportunity to represent non-Jews and we would definitely be interested and willing to do more of that when the need arises.

Isn’t the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox population in Israel growing faster than the other segments of the population? If that’s the case, won’t they always have the political clout to stymie your agenda?
At this point, the Orthodox altogether represent about 20 per cent of the Israeli population. It’s a long way before they become a majority, if that is going to happen at all. The important thing to understand is that timing is of the essence. Therefore, I think my visit to Toronto and other Jewish communities, and our work in Israel, is critically important.

The changes and the constitutional protection of religious freedom and equality is doable now and will become more and more difficult as time progresses.

How does Hiddush advance its agenda?
We take a multifold approach. On the one hand, we are engaged in outreach to policymakers, public-opinion moulders and the general public. We also engage through the media, through periodicals and systematic polling of public opinion and sharing the outcomes with policymakers.

We engage in legal action, which has enabled us to make significant headway in a number of areas where the courts could expand the scope of religious pluralism under existing Israeli law, without the need to change the law, and through coalition building and close collaboration with other like-minded organizations, ranging from modern Orthodox to secular organizations.

And, of course, reaching out to Jewish communities worldwide, especially in North America, and developing partnerships and collaborative efforts with organizations that are mainstream, Israel-oriented organizations, such as the federation world, to jointly generate constructive pressure towards a shared vision of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Can you point to any recent issues where Hiddush has been at the forefront of pushing for change and has registered some success?
One example is our long-time monitoring and investigating the representation of women in Israel’s religious councils, which resulted, after a number of legal battles, with the attorney general’s instruction to the minister of religious services to appoint at least 30 per cent women to all of Israel’s religious councils and to apply affirmative action to the appointment of women to senior positions.

Another example is our review and successful challenge to the age-old dominance of the Orthodox military rabbinate over military burials of Jews, to the exclusion of non-Orthodox burials or secular burials. We were able to bring about the change in army rules in that regard and we are still in the process of further perfecting it, to offer a pluralistic option for fallen soldiers.

Is there an issue about how the government spends its money, favouring Orthodox causes while the Conservative or Reform streams of Judaism are close to being shut out?
We definitely are monitoring and collaborating with other organizations on this front, as well. What you see since the fall of the previous government and the creation of the new governing coalition in 2015, which depends on the Orthodox parties, is that funding for ultra-Orthodox projects has risen to the highest levels ever.

Parallel to that, Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is the leader of the Orthodox Jewish Home party, has consistently made sure that preferential funding has been provided for Orthodox educational organizations, often ones that aim at bringing secular Israelis into the religious fold. There has been a discriminatory policy regarding non-Orthodox programs and secular Jewish programs throughout the years, and this is definitely one example of the need to level the playing field.

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.