Hard­line Is­raeli rab­bis use tough checks on Jewish iden­tity to block mar­riages

The Guardian Australia - - World News - Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem

Reut T, a 28-year-old Is­raeli sec­re­tary, re­gards her­self as a tra­di­tional and ob­ser­vant Jew, at­tend­ing syn­a­gogue each week. So hav­ing her Jewish­ness ques­tioned when she wanted to marry was shock­ing and hu­mil­i­at­ing.

The news, de­liv­ered in a sum­mons to a rab­bini­cal court, came out of the blue. Not only could she not be mar­ried by the rab­binate, she was told, but her very sta­tus as Jewish was be­ing ques­tioned, in a case now be­ing chal­lenged be­fore Is­rael’s supreme court.

Reut – who asked not to be iden­ti­fied to pre­vent fur­ther is­sues for her fam­ily – is not alone. Ac­cord­ing to fig­ures seen by the Ob­server, she is one of a grow­ing num­ber of Is­raeli cit­i­zens who, de­spite be­ing recog­nised as Jewish by the state, have had their Jewish­ness ques­tioned by an of­fi­cial rab­binate that en­joys an al­most ex­clu­sive mo­nop­oly on state mar­riage and other is­sues.

This was once a rare is­sue that af­fected only a hand­ful of Is­raelis, but this has changed un­der a newly as­sertive chief rab­binate, dom­i­nated by the ul­tra-or­tho­dox. A group called ITIM: Re­sources and Ad­vo­cacy for Jewish Life, which is rep­re­sent­ing Reut and other fam­i­lies, says the rab­binate has sum­moned scores of peo­ple in the past two years for in­ves­ti­ga­tion to prove their Jewish sta­tus.

Ac­cord­ing to fig­ures ac­quired by the group un­der a free­dom of in­for­ma­tion re­quest, there was an in­crease of 100% from 2011-2016 in the num­ber of peo­ple la­belled “pend­ing con­fir­ma­tion of Jewish sta­tus”. In the same pe­riod there has been a 460% rise in the num­ber of peo­ple re­jected as “non-Jews” by the rab­bini­cal courts. This is both sham­ing and painful, as Reut at­tests, and many of those af­fected have cho­sen to keep their ex­pe­ri­ence pri­vate to pro­tect other rel­a­tives whose own Jewish­ness could also be ques­tioned.

“Th­ese are fam­ily mem­bers who have un­der­gone thor­ough ex­am­i­na­tion of their Jewish­ness and came to live in Is­rael,” lawyers for Reut and ITIM ar­gued in an ap­peal con­test­ing that the rab­bini­cal courts have no author­ity, by law, to in­ves­ti­gate or re­ject, on their own ini­tia­tive, the Jewish­ness of Is­raeli cit­i­zens. “Sud­denly and with­out their will or con­sent, a cloud of doubt is cast over their Jewish­ness. They are re­quired to an­swer to the rab­bini­cal court, with­out hav­ing done any­thing to de­serve a trial over their iden­tity. There is not enough space to de­scribe the per­sonal and emo­tional dam­age this sit­u­a­tion cre­ates.”

The sud­den rise in in­ves­ti­ga­tions also co­in­cides with a vaguely worded but far-reach­ing rul­ing is­sued by the rab­bini­cal courts in 2016 call­ing for in­ves­ti­ga­tion if “a doubt has arisen con­sid­er­ing the Jewish­ness of a rel­a­tive” re­quir­ing the courts “to clar­ify the mat­ter of their Jewish­ness for the pur­pose of mar­riage ac­cord­ing to Jewish law”.

The in­crease comes amid a wider cul­tural con­flict be­tween the ul­tra­ortho­dox-dom­i­nated chief rab­binate and less hard­line groups in Is­rael and the wider Jewish di­as­pora over what it means to be Jewish and who is al­lowed to de­fine Jewish­ness. This led, among other things, to a clash this year over plans to al­low men and women to pray to­gether at Jerusalem’s West­ern Wall.

It has also re­sulted in the dis­clo­sure of an al­leged “black­list” of 160 rab­bis world­wide whom the rab­binate does not trust to check the Jewish­ness of im­mi­grants to Is­rael: among the names on the list is the US rabbi who over­saw the con­ver­sion of Ivanka Trump.

Reut’s prob­lem is that she came to Is­rael from the former Soviet Union aged 10 months, the grand­daugh­ter of an or­phaned Holo­caust sur­vivor adopted by a non-Jewish cou­ple who made an­ti­semitic com­ments to her. Her grand­mother was scarred by her ex­pe­ri­ence, Reut said, and af­ter flee­ing her adop­tive par­ents as a teenager hid the fact she was Jewish on of­fi­cial USSR pa­pers, a de­ci­sion that has come back to haunt their fam­ily.

“When I de­cided to get mar­ried I knew I would have to go through a regis­tra­tion process so I got in touch with a re­li­gious or­gan­i­sa­tion that helps with the pa­per­work,” she told the Ob­server. “One of the rab­bis said it was prob­lem­atic be­cause we didn’t have my grand­mother’s birth cer­tifi­cate, but that they would try to find it in the archive.”

But far from help­ing Reut, the rabbi in­stead raised the is­sue of her Jewish­ness with the rab­binate. “The next thing I knew,” she re­called, “was that I had been sum­moned to a rab­bini­cal court in Tel Aviv to dis­cuss my Jewish sta­tus.”

The process led to Reut, her brother and her mother be­ing listed as “not Jewish” ac­cord­ing to the rab­binate.

Rabbi Seth Far­ber, di­rec­tor of ITIM, says it is a ques­tion of how Jewish­ness is de­fined in Is­rael, and how the rab­binate is us­ing this – not least for al­most a mil­lion former Soviet Jews who came to Is­rael un­der a state-ad­min­is­tered right of re­turn that has al­ready ruled on their Jewish sta­tus for cit­i­zen­ship pur­poses.

“This is a very wor­ri­some trend. Is­rael is a na­tion of im­mi­grants. If this con­tin­ues, it puts in dan­ger the most ba­sic hu­man rights of more than a mil­lion cit­i­zens,” said Far­ber. “Be­yond this, it is also against Jewish law, which states that one must take at their word a per­son who says they are Jewish. A small group is im­pos­ing its fun­da­men­tal­ist views on the Is­raeli im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tion.

“For the first 50 years of the state it was largely apro forma thing. You de­fined your­self as Jewish and you brought wit­nesses who said you were Jewish. But then as the rab­binate be­came more pow­er­ful and in­de­pen­dent, and as new tech­nol­ogy al­lowed it, it be­came no longer a ques­tion of trust.

“A whole de­part­ment was cre­ated to check on doc­u­men­ta­tion which mor­phed – seven years ago – into the com­pi­la­tion of an en­tire hand­book. That was the first time such a book was pub­lished. That all led to the lat­est de­vel­op­ment, the ini­ti­at­ing of Jewish­ness in­ves­ti­ga­tions, a process that started es­ca­lat­ing in 2015. And now it ap­pears they’re not only check­ing peo­ple reg­is­ter­ing to get mar­ried but recheck­ing peo­ple al­ready mar­ried if they have any ba­sis for sus­pi­cion.”

Far­ber be­lieves there is a wider is­sue at stake than sim­ply in­di­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies. “It’s about what Is­rael is go­ing to be. We don’t in­ter­ro­gate Jews and put them through in­ves­ti­ga­tions.”

He links re­cent moves by the chief rab­binate and courts in part to Is­raeli coali­tion pol­i­tics, which has al­lowed the small ul­tra-or­tho­dox par­ties that prop up prime min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu’s rightwing gov­ern­ment to wield dis­pro­por­tional in­flu­ence.

For Reut the ex­pe­ri­ence has been hu­mil­i­at­ing. “It was very im­por­tant to me to get mar­ried ac­cord­ing to Jewish law. In the end I had to go through a pri­vate or­gan­i­sa­tion to do it and then get mar­ried in Cyprus to be recog­nised as mar­ried un­der civil law in Is­rael.

“I feel like a sec­ond-class cit­i­zen. It is ab­so­lutely ridicu­lous that as an Is­raeli cit­i­zen who goes to syn­a­gogue ev­ery week I am not al­lowed to get mar­ried here just be­cause some­one de­cided they had doubts about my Jewish­ness.”

A rabbi leads wor­ship­pers in Ash­dod on the shore of the Mediter­ranean Pho­to­graph: Amir Co­hen/Reuters

Smoke fills the air as ul­tra-or­tho­dox Jews burn leav­ened items in fi­nal prepa­ra­tion for the Passover hol­i­day in Jerusalem. Pho­to­graph: Oded Balilty/AP

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