Egalitarian Kotel Prayer Plan Just Start of Religious Pluralism Debate in Israel

Fights Loom Over Marriage, Conversion and Shabbat Transit

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By JTA

Published April 17, 2013.

Natan Sharansky’s proposal last week to expand the space for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall could be historic.

But for most Israelis, changes at the Western Wall are of only trivial interest. Far more pressing are state restrictions on marriage and conversion, Sabbath bans on public transit, and haredi Orthodox exemptions from Israel’s mandatory draft.

The haredi draft exemption was a central issue in January’s elections for the Knesset, and it has been a hot topic of debate for the last year or so. A comprehensive bill is now in the works to draft haredi men, providing financial incentives to those who enlist and penalizing those who don’t.

A few political parties – notably the large, centrist Yesh Atid – have promised reforms on marriage, conversion and public transportation, too. But with the government’s coalition agreement giving each party veto power over any change in the state’s religious policy, sweeping changes on marriage and conversion are unlikely because the nationalist Jewish Home party is unlikely to approve such reforms.

The Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate nearly has a monopoly over marriage and conversion in Israel. Non-Orthodox wedding ceremonies, interfaith marriages and same-sex marriages are not recognized in Israel unless such couples wed and obtain a valid marriage certificate overseas.

When it comes to conversion in Israel, there is only one kind: Orthodox. Non-Orthodox converts to Judaism from overseas may be granted citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return, but the Rabbinate can prevent them from marrying, divorcing or being buried as Jews once they are in Israel.

Perhaps a milder issue by comparison, many secular Israelis chafe against Sabbath-day limitations on public transit and commerce. While not entirely banned on Saturdays, they are subject to severely restrictive laws.

There have been some reforms in all three areas in recent years.



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