Reprinted from Jonathan Cook Blog
Supreme religious body faces growing backlash as critics compare Israel's religious freedoms to Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan
More than one in 10 Israeli Jews cannot marry legally in their own country, Israeli legislators heard last week, as Israel's religious authorities face a growing backlash against their wide-ranging powers.
Campaigners for religious freedom in Israel presented data showing that some 660,000 Israeli Jews were denied the right to marry. More than half -- 364,000 -- are immigrants from the former Soviet Union whose Jewishness is not officially recognized.
According to government figures, Israel's Jewish population stands at about 6.3 million.
The Chief Rabbinate, the supreme religious authority in Israel for the Jewish population, has exclusive control over a range of personal status matters, including conversion, marriage and divorce.
It also restricts opening times for businesses and the operation of public transport on the Sabbath, the Jewish weekend, and its inspectors control food production through the issuing of kosher licences.
Uri Regev, a rabbi who heads Hiddush, an organization promoting religious pluralism that presented the statistics to the parliament, said Israelis were fed up being "shackled" to the Chief Rabbinate.
"The rabbinate's monopoly not only undermines Israelis' religious freedoms but it increasingly makes the general public come to resent, even hate, Judaism," he told Middle East Eye.
The rabbinate represents a strict stream of Judaism known as Orthodoxy. Other, more liberal trends within Judaism have no official standing.
But Regev said the rabbinate has become more extreme, with recent chief rabbis drawn from the fundamentalist ultra-Orthodox movement, or Haredim. They are distinctive for wearing black head-coverings and jackets based on dress codes from 18th century Europe.
Ofer Cornfeld, head of Havaya, an organization that conducts civil marriages in Israel, said: "The Chief Rabbinate is stuck with a worldview from 200 years ago, when being a Jew was simply a religious identity.
"But the reality in Israel today is different. Many Jews here have a very strong secular identity," he told MEE. "The rabbis think they can continue burying their heads in the sand, but they are wrong."
According to a global map of marriage rights produced by Hiddush, Israel's policies are in line with those of states like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and North Korea.
Problems facing those denied the right to marry have grown so acute in recent years that one in five marriages is reported to be conducted abroad, typically in Cyprus or Prague, said Cornfeld.