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What Matters Now to religion and state activist Uri Regev: Averting a theocracy

The Israeli lawyer/Reform rabbi explains how the judicial overhaul package may affect religious freedom – and the lack thereof – in the Holy Land

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Welcome to What Matters Now, a new weekly podcast exploration into one key issue shaping Israel and the Jewish World — right now.

Wednesday night on primetime news, Israeli President Isaac Herzog presented his long-awaited “People’s Framework,” a platform meant to be the basis for working toward a compromise on the judicial overhaul.

A few hours later, the platform was rejected by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and judicial overhaul legislation continues apace.

This week on What Matters Now, we learn how the new legislation could affect issues of religion and state. We hear from attorney and Reform Rabbi Uri Regev, the head of Hiddush: For Religious Freedom and Democracy, which describes itself as “a non-denominational, non-partisan Israel-Diaspora partnership uniting people across political and religious spectrums.”

Before founding Hiddush 12 years ago, Regev served as president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, a global umbrella organization of the Progressive, Reform, Liberal and Reconstructionist movements, and was the founding chair and executive director and legal counsel of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC).

Prophetically, back in 2015, Regev told The Times of Israel — after facing off and winning a Supreme Court case against the future MK Simcha Rothman, the author of much of the judicial overhaul —  “it starts and ends with people fighting for the Declaration of Independence.”

This week, we hear What Matters Now to religious rights activist Uri Regev.

The following transcript has been lightly edited.

The Times of Israel: Uri, thank you so much for joining me here today in our Jerusalem offices on this surprisingly rainy day here.

Uri Regev: It’s a pleasure.

Attorney and Reform Rabbi Uri Regev, head of Hiddush: For Religious Freedom and Equality. (Courtesy)

The pleasure is all mine, and I hope our listeners’, as we discuss right now how the proposed judicial overhaul is going to affect your field, which is religion and state. So, Uri, I ask you today, what matters now?

Well, the first is to the pleasure. I’m not sure whether listening to me would give people pleasure or indigestion, but this goes right to the heart of what matters now. Nothing other than this is the biggest crisis, domestic crisis, I recall in the decades that I’ve been around and active. Nothing like it before, and I hope nothing will happen in the future that resembles it.

In our years of speaking to each other over religion and state matters, we’ve faced the Western Wall crisis. We’ve faced all sorts of different things of religion and state. But you’re saying that the judicial overhaul is the biggest crisis facing issues of religion and state today.

Not because it’s the judicial overhaul, but because of what stands behind the judicial overhaul. I think the judicial overhaul, I would call it a masquerade party, because much of what you hear covers something else behind it. And we are at times, I think, misled to believe that what people say is what is really guiding them and motivating them. There are very few people among those who are pushing this overhaul that are genuinely and seriously concerned about the fine points of the judicial system in Israel. It’s an excuse to try and move out of the way the only obstacle that the two groups that have joined together and by joining together have now been able to muster a majority.

What are the two groups?

The two groups are the extreme right-wing group, and I want to be very clear on that: We at Hiddush are not involved in partisan politics, nor are we in the crucial matters of peace, settlements, security, economic philosophies, et cetera. We created Hiddush back about 12 years with the sole purpose of advancing the promise of Israel’s Declaration of Independence for religious freedom, of freedom of religion and conscience and equality, regardless of religion.

So when I’m saying extreme right-wingers, I’m not saying that to mean criticism of a right-wing approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Jewish-Arab conflict. I’m saying that there are extreme right-wingers, and I’ll say a word about what I mean by that. Those who still have not given up on the notion of bringing Israel in the direction of a Torah state, of a theocracy.

The two are different, they are only very partially overlapping. But the fact that these two groups have found themselves together, linked in a coalition that gives them 64, this meager, this tiny majority, but one that is enough in order to reverse the course and turn Israel away from being a Jewish democratic state into being a Jewish and Jewish state. And Jewish and Jewish is misleading because this isn’t Jewish as most of your listeners take Jewish to be or Judaism to be. This is Jewish as in the most extreme, fundamentalist, ultra-Orthodox interpretation.

So you feel that we’re facing a theocracy, essentially?

I don’t think so. I think that I’m hesitant to use the term “dictatorship,” and I’m hesitant to use the term “theocracy.” I actually had a great intellectual experience many, many years ago when I studied at the philosophy department at Tel Aviv University, a course on Jewish theocracy with the late Professor Gershon Weiler, who wrote a book titled “Jewish Theocracy.” So theocracy really never existed: It’s an ethos, it’s a theme. But even if it’s not going to be a Jewish theocracy, it’s going to get as close to it as they can get away with, and they can get away with a lot.

And I’ll hint as to what I mean, because the reality is that on the one hand, the rhetoric of those who promote the “reform,” those who promote it say that they are speaking in the name of the people. We the people, then in the name of democracy, in the name of the majority. That this poor majority whose hands have been tied behind its back. It wasn’t able to do what the majority wants to do because of this “judicial dictatorship,” which is the label that they often use.

Parents and their children protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, March 16, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The reality is that all the issues that are on the agenda now in terms of the religious parties, Haredi parties on the legislative docket that are still waiting in line. All of them, without exception, are rejected and opposed to by the overwhelming majority of the adultery population in Israel. There isn’t one that the majority supports. The irony is that the majority of the Likud voters oppose it. And nevertheless, these two groups have found a common interest, and they realize they need each other in order to do what they would like, which is antidemocratic against the will of the majority and undermining Israeli democracy.

Okay, let’s break it down a little bit and give some very solid examples.

Let’s be concrete. Tachlis.

Let’s be concrete. “Tachlis,” the best word in Hebrew. So let’s talk about some of the issues that you are always fighting for and just I’ll pick one out of the air. Civil marriage.

Well, yes, civil marriage is, in my view, the most important representation of the conflict over religion and state. But that actually is not coming under the current judicial overhaul.

So I’ll say a word about marriage, and I’ll tell you what does come under it. So with regard to marriage, you may know we have just marked a landmark victory in the Supreme Court that ordered the state to register as married the couples who have already married via the online marriage platform that was created in Utah by Utah County. A real pioneering effort that has helped couples all over the world, homosexual couples in China, not just the many Israeli couples who cannot get married.

But the issue is that hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens are denied the basic right of marriage. 1948, May 14, the State of Israel is founded. Promises freedom of religion and conscience equality regardless of religion. December 10, 1948, the UN adopts the universal Declaration of Human Rights. One of those cherished rights is the right to family, the right to marry. The State of Israel does not hold the right of marriage as a right of its citizens and it is the only Western democracy in the world that does not uphold the right to marry.

And as a result, as I said, we estimate somewhere between 600,000-700,000 Israeli citizens cannot marry at all in Israel because marriage has been handed over to the religious authorities. Not just Jewish, the other religious authorities, but in the case of Jewish, of the Jewish community, it’s only the Orthodox that have the authority to marry and impose restrictions. So if you are a Russian oleh or olah [immigrant] whose father is Jewish and your mother is not Jewish, yes, you come to Israel under the Law of Return. But no, you cannot legally marry in Israel. If you are a Reform convert or Conservative convert, or a Modern Orthodox convert such as Rabbi Haskel Lookstein’s converts — not the famous one that hasn’t made aliyah yet, but others that have made aliyah, they can’t get married in Israel.

Sapir and Gili Zeelon get married over Zoom through a wedding officiant in Utah in January 2021. (Courtesy: Sapir Zeelon)

You’re talking about Ivanka Trump being the famous one.

Yes, that’s right, but others have and they couldn’t get married until they re-converted in Israel. So those converts can’t get married in Israel. They all can receive Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. None of them can marry legally in Israel and of course, same-sex couples and others.

So this is a bad situation that isn’t going to get worse, but what is going to get worse, related to this?

So what’s on the agenda now? First and foremost, the Draft Law and the ultra-Orthodox parties have resisted all the attempts to try and play a game: We’ll pass a law that looks like it’s aimed at drafting yeshiva students, but in truth, it won’t draft yeshiva students. But the mere fact that it creates the impression they’ll have to serve was enough to have them oppose it altogether. And worse yet, it includes some seemingly economic sanctions. If yeshivas are not going to cooperate, if individuals are going to dodge the draft, et cetera, we’ll take away their subsidy. No [they say], there can’t be a penalty for studying Torah in Israel.

Well, the reality is that the Supreme Court has already declared this law in its different reiterations as unconstitutional because of the seriousness, and the severity of the breach of the principle of equality that it introduces. And as far as they are concerned, who cares about equality? Who cares about the court? We don’t want even a symbolic number to be quoted in the law. As far as we are concerned, there is one principle that should govern, they say, no Yeshiva students that doesn’t want to serve will be forced to serve. No sanction against such a yeshiva student.

Well, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of the public says draft them. Some say draft them all. Some say draft them and leave only a small elite that could continue studying and be supported by the national coffers, including the majority of the Likud voters. So how do you square the circle?

With an override law.

Exactly, with an override law. So they’ve twisted the arms, and I have to say, for the Likud’s benefit, it’s not about the Likud alone. Previous governments, left, center and right, have been willing to sell the principle of equality, our dignity, our basic rights, such as the right to marry, such as gender equality, et cetera, willing to sell them out for the pittance of political support. And therefore, we are now 75 years into the life of the state with such a travesty.

Illustrative: Students study at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, September 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

There is one sector in the population, and I’m putting aside the Israeli-Arab conflict, that’s a different story altogether. There is one sector that’s immune from sharing in the defense of the country, and that’s the Haredi sector. [It is] morally, religiously and legally unacceptable. That’s just one example. There are other examples: The issue of core curriculum, and now the added three and a half billion shekels that are going to be handed over for schools that don’t even pretend to teach core curriculum. And of course, there are the issues of Shabbat, and they are the issues of gender equality that’s going to be moved backwards rather than forwards, et cetera. All of these issues that are high on the ultra-Orthodox agenda and over the years, the Supreme Court with tremendous care, with tremendous I wouldn’t say timidity, but really they postponed it and postponed it until there is no postponing. All of them have found one address, and that is the Supreme Court, because they’ve certainly been able to twist the arms of their political allies, as I said, left, right and center. And therefore the result is bring down the court.

And here is a great irony the ultra-Orthodox parties’ political partners are not speaking aloud, and the opposition is not speaking aloud. Other than, ironically, one: in an editorial of Yetid Neeman, [United Torah Judaism MK] Rabbi Moshe Gafni’s daily paper, there is an editorial that says, “yes, this battle to neutralize the Supreme Court is urgent and we are not going to give up.” And, you know, Gafni himself said, if [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is going to waiver on that, the next day, he’s not going to have a coalition. We will bring down his government. But the editorial goes on saying, “don’t misunderstand. You, our loyal readers. Don’t think that with this judicial overhaul, matters are going to be corrected. No! As far as we are concerned, the court is illegitimate. Any court, neutralized or powerful. We believe that sovereignty is not in the hands of the people. Sovereignty is in the hands of God. And we believe that only courts that govern according to halacha [Jewish law] are legitimate courts.”

Here we are in Jerusalem, and the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Amar, who is the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, wrote years ago, wrote a sort of a midrash, a homily, whatever, on the verse of “Hukim umishpatim,” about laws and ordinances. And he says, about the Supreme Court: Jews may not come to judgment before civil courts. The civil courts are heretical. It has to be only religious courts. And so long as this does not happen, Jerusalem, namely, Israel does not have the right to be called a “kiriya ne’emana,” a loyal city, a loyal country. And he ends his message and he says, even if they democratically, decide that there should be civil courts, that consent is illegitimate and unacceptable. And he ends his inspiring message with, “and may all evil be consumed by smoke as you bring down this evil government from the face of the Earth.”

Yes, we prayed on the High Holidays. We never thought that this applies to the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, but I guess he sees it differently.

Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Rabbi Yechiel Abuchatzeira and rabbis from the Or Hashravi Yeshiva in Meron take part in a special prayer to stop the coronavirus pandemic, at the Rashbi gravesite in Meron, northern Israel, March 9, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Let’s take a few more really concrete examples and really bring it forth to our listeners. What could be at stake here with this judicial overhaul?

So let’s talk about the Kotel [Western Wall]. There is a pending case before the Supreme Court that was brought by the Reform and Conservative and Women of the Wall, and we are actually also one of the petitioners, and the ruling is expected. What this does is, whatever the ruling may be, and we hope the ruling will be in favor of freedom of worship, especially given the agreement that was signed with the government of Israel, et cetera. Whatever the ruling is going to be, the coalition is going to wipe it out. White it out!

So any decision on pluralism, such as the Western Wall, on women’s equality, on draft, on money, on education, on Shabbat, on kashrut, the issue of the hospitals, we have another petition about that.

Here is the irony that I’m sure your audience will appreciate. We brought a petition on behalf of Hiddush and the Secular Forum regarding hametz on army bases on Pesach.

Meaning during Passover, the right to eat anything that has leavening in it.

That’s correct. Thank you for explaining. And we are not suggesting that it be eaten in the dining hall. We are not suggesting that the army provide non-kosher food for Pesach. We are not suggesting that it be eaten in the cafeterias. What we are saying is, why deny individuals, Jewish or not Jewish, the ability to have a sandwich in the privacy of their rooms? And that is exactly the case. And there have been searches and seizures and all kinds of things.

The irony here is the chief military rabbinate is saying that would taint all food in the base. No religious soldier will be able to serve during Pesach. We’ll have to erect a petition between the non-religious soldier and the religious soldier in the joint office because the religious soldier can’t see the non-religious soldier holding a sandwich. Now, what about the US Army? What about students on campus, in the dorms? There have been repeated rulings on the part of the Orthodox rabbinate, the Orthodox chaplains in the US Army, and rabbis who serve the Jewish students, etc. that the basic Jewish law for Pesach is you cannot possess hametz, you cannot eat hametz, but the fact that your neighbor has hametz — and even if he eats it in front of you — does not deter in the least your ability to observe kashrut.

So this is an expansion and an imposition of interpretation that’s outside the scope of legitimate Jewish law. Why do they do it? Because they can. And with the judicial overhaul, even the court won’t be able to stop it.

LGBTQ Birthright Israel ‘Pride’ trip in Tel Aviv. (Samuel Benji)

Okay, so you’re painting a very dire picture, obviously, and you’re, as you said, painting a picture of a near theocracy that perhaps we are approaching. What are you hearing from Diaspora Jews? You travel quite a lot as part of your job. What are you hearing outside of Israel from Jewry?

It’s a tragedy because all of this is happening at a time when the Jewish community is drifting away [from Israel]. There is a growing gap, a growing distance. The ties that held us together for my generation and my parents’ generation, the memory of the Six-Day War, the sort of immediate sense in our families of the Shoah [Holocaust], the founding of the State of Israel for the younger generation, all of that does not apply.

So what would hold them within the same tent? What would hold them to feeling that there is solidarity, that there is a bond, which is more important than just reading the news about Israel? And I’m going back to — I said there are two elements that come together that are pushing for this judicial overhaul. One is the extremist right wing, the messianic right wing, the [Religious Zionism head Bezalel] Smotrich and [Otzma Yehudit head Itamar] Ben Gvir type, and the other is the Torah state orientation.

With regard to the right wing, we need to understand that there is a systemic conflict here. We [at Hiddush] have done many surveys as part of our annual religion and state index and other surveys that we do. And what you see is that when you ask Israelis, where are you on the political spectrum, consistently in recent years, about 65 percent place themselves on the right of center, whereas only 15% place themselves on the left of center.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich poses with Israel Bonds members at their conference in Washington on March 12, 2023. (Bezalel Smotrich/Twitter)

Religiously, it’s the reverse picture. Religiously, it’s 65-70% to 75% who say, we support religious freedom. We support pluralism. We support free choice and only about 30% that support the status quo or even greater religious coercion or imposition or whatever.

But when it comes to the political arena, the picture in the US, that I know better than other Jewish communities is the reverse. The majority of Jews are liberal, and the fact that Israel is pursuing a right-wing policy unfortunately, people do not understand the existential threats that Israel is facing in the same way that we feel them, and they’re embarrassed by some of the things like the Huwara “pogrom.” And when they hear Minister Smotrich saying, and then trying to correct it, and then trying to correct it for the second time and then seeing that it doesn’t work, so he tries to correct it the third time and then the fourth time. By the third time, you shouldn’t believe any words that he’s saying, and for good reason. But when he says, “Wipe Huwara out,” and then explains, well, “I don’t mean that vigilantes should do it, the state of Israel, the army should do it,” that’s terrible!

Those who hear it say if that’s what the State of Israel is really standing for in terms of the aspirations of peace and coexistence, the reconciliation, but that is a systemic conflict.

The area where we could try to make a difference is the reality in which we tell the young generation of American Jewry, as far as we are concerned, namely the state of Israel, “you ain’t really Jewish, and if you are somewhat Jewish, you are second-class Jew. For instance, if you come to Israel, if you heed to our pleading and invitations, come make aliyah, etc., just please realize: In Israel, you won’t be able to legally marry. You want to get married, you want to start a family, go back home.” And telling this young generation that as far as Israel is concerned, you are not a full-fledged Jew and you’re not going to be a first-class citizen. Whom in their right mind do you expect to feel strongly about the bond and the solidarity?

So what are we? Are we going to be forced to go back to antisemitism as the glue that binds us together? What a terrible prospect.

So, yes, when I’m traveling, I’m seeing less and less interest, less and less commitment. More and more people who are saying, we have a crisis here. We need to focus on that, and that’s where our resources should go.

And I do find — and that’s what keeps me going and keeps me encouraged — I do find both rabbinic colleagues and friends and activists who are saying, “Israel is too important to be left to those petty politicians.” And they look at the protests in Israel and they are inspired and they feel there is actually a future, a prospective future that we can work together to bring about.

And that encourages me and that encourages them.

Uri, we have to end now because otherwise, we’ll go back to terrible stuff. So thank you so much for joining me today.

Thank you.

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