If somebody would have told Theodor Herzl that in the Jewish state dozens of rabbis would put their signature to a letter that forbids Jews to rent or sell apartments to gentiles, he would certainly have been outraged.
Herzl and the municipal rabbis
The nature of the religious establishment in Israel is an excellent justification for its separation from state institutions.
By Alexander Yakobson • Ha'aretz
If somebody would have told Theodor Herzl that in the Jewish state dozens of rabbis would put their signature to a letter that forbids Jews to rent or sell apartments to gentiles, he would certainly have been outraged, but it is doubtful whether he would have been surprised. In his book "Altneuland," he describes an election campaign during which the Orthodox head of a nationalist party demands that non-Jews be denied the right to vote. The party is then routed at the ballot box.
Herzl would certainly have been happy to hear that in Israel a party that adopted the platform espoused by Rabbi Geyer would have been barred from participating in the elections. But he would probably have raised an eyebrow upon hearing of the existence of "municipal rabbi," a title borne by many of the letter's signatories. "When did rabbis suddenly receive official positions?" he would have asked bitterly. "After all, I explicitly wrote, after emphasizing my respect for religion and tradition, that we must prevent any effort by religious functionaries to participate in the running of the state. The rabbis should be kept in the synagogues, just as the army should be kept in the barracks."
It seems that Herzl's position on this matter was more radical than what is acceptable today in many liberal countries. In Great Britain, the government still appoints bishops to the Anglican Church. Some of these bishops represent the church in the House of Lords, and Parliament was called upon to grant women the right to serve in this position. In Denmark and Norway, the king appoints the hierarchy of the Lutheran Church, to which the monarch also must belong.
The adoption of religious symbols by modern democracies is also not uncommon. The cross appears on the flags of a number of European countries, while the constitutions of Ireland and Greece begin with the words "In the name of the most holy Trinity." But there is no other democracy in which the religious establishment maintains a monopoly over marriage laws such as it does in Israel (this was the case in Greece until the 1980s ), nor is there any other democratic country in which a scandalous, shameful document like the rabbis' letter would have been possible regardless of the official status of the religious establishment.
In contrast to what many believe, there are no universal norms that require the separation of religious and state institutions, though there is an excellent justification for such a separation in Israel: the nature of the religious establishment in this country. While the entire establishment may not support the letter, it is clear that there are many who do.
A separation of religion from state in this country is not a politically realistic option. But the link between religious establishments and state institutions is not just a privilege; it also comes at a price. Whoever receives official power from the state becomes subject to the mechanism which scrutinizes the actions of officials. This mechanism in Israel enjoys considerable power and has already removed officeholders from their positions.
The letter's signatories are obviously banking on the fact that dozens of rabbis will not be indicted for the statements expressed in the letter, irrespective of their gravity. But there must be an urgent demand for their removal from their jobs.
Unfortunately, there are a number of areas in which the state either refrains from, or has difficulty in, enforcing its laws. Yet whenever an individual who holds an official position exploits the authority accorded to him by his job status in contravention of the law and harms a fellow citizen, the state is not permitted to allow that person to remain in his post and continue to act in such a manner. Allowing that individual to continue in his job under these circumstances is a clear infringement on the rights of citizens who have been harmed by those actions. Public condemnations will leave no lasting impression on municipal rabbis, but petitioning the High Court of Justice against them continuing in their posts just might.