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Israel: first liberal rabbi in Knesset challenges Orthodox monopoly

Israel must end the monopoly of the ultra-Orthodox on religious affairs, or even facilitate mixed prayer between men and women at the Western Wall, said in an interview with AFP Gilad Kariv, the first liberal rabbi elected to the Knesset.

Since an agreement reached during the creation of Israel in 1948 between David Ben-Gurion and the great Orthodox rabbis, the laws of the more conservative stream of Judaism have governed entire swathes of Israeli life.

In Israel, the Jewish population must have recourse to Orthodox rabbis to marry or divorce, public transport is prohibited during Shabbat and religious dietary laws (kashrut) apply in all public institutions (ministries, schools or the military. ).

But liberal rabbi Gilad Kariv, 48, elected in March under the banner of the Labor Party, defies the Orthodox monopoly.

In the United States, where the largest number of Jews live after Israel, most of them claim to be liberal Judaism and Masorti, two unorthodox currents that advocate equality between men and women.

These movements nevertheless remain in the minority in Israel, which does not prevent the deputy from thinking that “the majority of the non-religious public in the country feels much closer to us (liberals) than to orthodox Judaism”, he underlines. , his head covered with a small kippah.

“The one subject on which people on the right and left overwhelmingly agree in Israel is the relationship between religion and state. Most Israelis support civil marriage, public transport on Shabbat and mixed space at the “Western Wall,” he said in his office at the Knesset, Parliament.

Religious pluralism has long been the workhorse of this lawyer by training, leader of the liberal religious movement in Israel for more than a decade before making a leap into politics.

For him, Israel is “a Jewish and democratic country, which does not mean orthodox and democratic”.

– Death threats –

“The ultra-Orthodox are the first to know which direction the Jews in Israel will take when they have the possibility of choosing between a conservative Judaism, closed on the world, often prone, if not to racism at least to lack of tolerance, and a egalitarian Judaism (between men and women), open, inclusive. They are fighting against that, ”he assures us.

When he arrived in Parliament, some ultra-Orthodox deputies refused to greet him and called him “satanic”.

Others continued to boycott parliamentary discussions in which he participated, a habit acquired when he was invited as leader of the liberal movement.

Trips compared to this morning in 2016, when he discovered “a long knife with (his) name written on it” at the entrance of his synagogue accompanied by graffiti calling for him to be killed, he recalls.

It was tagged: “The divine presence will never leave the Western Wall”, in reference to the fight of the one who defends the creation of a mixed prayer space in the most sacred place of meditation in Judaism.

Located in the Old City of Jerusalem, the Western Wall is placed under the authority of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, who has imposed a split in the space of prayer between men and women.

In 2016, the progressive Jewish movements had obtained the development of a mixed space, but the former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had made an about-face, under the pressure of his ultra-Orthodox allies.

With the new government coalition that came to power in June and which has no ultra-Orthodox MPs, this agreement has been put back on the agenda, angering the Haredim (“God fearing”, ultra-Orthodox).

In early November, during the “rosh hodesh” prayer at the Western Wall, marking the beginning of the month in the Hebrew calendar, President Isaac Herzog asked Gilad Kariv to cancel his visit to calm things down. He had complied.

Despite these tensions, the MP is optimistic about the chances of the new government to reach an agreement on the Wall and to advance religious pluralism.

“I think it fits well with the spirit of the government, a broad and varied coalition,” he said, referring to the diversity of the parties in power, right, center and left.

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