IDF Soldiers
IDF Soldiers iStock

I was astonished to read the blatant and baseless attack against Hiddush, the organization I head, which fights for freedom of religion and equality, and against our partners in the petition we filed with Israel’s Supreme Court: the Secular Forum and fourteen parents of Israeli soldiers. The petition is intended to protect the liberty and dignity of non-religious Jewish soldiers and non-Jewish soldiers who serve in the Israel Defense Force. The attacker is the CEO of an American organization, the Lawfare Project, which defines its mission as "the protection of the human and civil rights of Jews and fighting discrimination."

Upon reading her remarks it becomes apparent that that she has absolutely no comprehension of the facts and their legal significance, of the reality in the IDF, nor of the position of Jewish halachic tradition. Within the limited framework of this article, we will illustrate this with a few examples, and will emphasize the main challenge that confronts us: safeguarding the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, according to the values ​​of the Declaration of Independence, which guarantees freedom of religion and conscience and full equality of rights regardless of religion.

In the petition, we demanded that side-by-side with the IDF's strict observance of Passover kashrut laws in all military kitchens, dining rooms and canteens, soldiers who do not observe kashrut laws would be allowed to eat their own choice of private food within their private domain, without compromising the ability of observant soldiers to fully observe kashrut laws, and without detracting from the kosher status of the food provided by the IDF to its soldiers.

The attack was published in both Hebrew and English after it became apparent that the Lawfare Project is funding a legal motion against our petition, on behalf of yeshiva organizations and several military preparatory programs. We wrote to the CEO of the organization and expressed our surprise at Lawfare’s intervention, aimed at the perpetuation of religious coercion instead of supporting religious freedom, and our regret that she did not even bother to contact us first to check the facts.

The CEO's response to our communication, and to questions addressed to her by an Israeli journalist was to publish the “Open Letter to the Israeli Public”, in which she accuses us of "attacking the Jewish character of the State and divorce Israel from the Jewish People”, "creating a false conflict … in order to foster division in Israeli society" , “Infringing on the religious freedoms of countless observant soldiers”, “Seeking secular coercion by forcing the violation of Jewish law on to observant soldiers”, " Creating a situation where religious and non-religious soldiers would eat separately and live separately ", “obliging the military to create two kitchens, two barracks” and more. All these accusations lack any shred of truth, and it is clear that the author did not read the petition, does not understand it, and that she regards the truth as only a secondary consideration in the crusade she is conducting against the New Israel Fund, which has nothing to do with this petition. The author, trying to make a connection between the NIF and the petition, claims that the petitioners are “NIF-funded organizations.” In the Hebrew version of the op-ed, she also claimed the petition was funded by the NIF. It should therefore be emphasized that the petitioner organizations do not engage in the disputes between the political right and left in Israel at all. Furthermore, for years the NIF has not supported Hiddush from its budget, and even in the distant past its minimal support represented only 2-3% of Hiddush’s annual budget.

The petition is one of a series of legal, public, and ideological efforts by Hiddush to advance religious freedom and equality, exactly as promised in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. These basic values are distorted, and their full realization is prevented by the unholy alliance between religion and politics in Israel, in conscious disregard of the wishes of the majority of Israeli Jews. The causes we marshal include freedom of marriage, gender equality, equitable sharing of the civil and military burden, freedom of movement [allowing public transportation on Shabbat], religious pluralism, and more. By the way, in all these areas, "human and civil Jewish rights" are violated, but the Lawfare Project did not intervene nor lend its support in any of them. For example, Israel is the only Western democracy in the world that denies its citizens the basic right to marry, and therefore hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens can not marry here at all due to the Orthodox Rabbinate's control over the marriage of all Jews in Israel.
This is not about "secular coercion" - the opposite is true. It is about protecting the rights of secular and non-Jewish soldiers without detracting at all from the observance of kashrut by religious soldiers. It is about the need to balance the rights and autonomy of both, and the recognition that cohesion and solidarity require mutual respect and not unilateral coercion.

We made it clear right at the beginning of the petition that we agree with the strict adherence to Kashrut in the army kitchens, dining rooms and wherever the IDF prepares and serves food to its soldiers. Nor does the petition demand that the IDF provide non-kosher food. The petition concerns the soldier’s private possession of food, while emphasizing the fact that the observance of kashrut is not harmed at all by the fact that a non-observant or non-Jewish soldier holds or eats his/her own chametz food. This is an ancient halachic principle, and based on this, observant Jews can serve in the armies of their countries of residence (where chametz food may usually be found around them) without this deterring or impairing their own Passover Kashrut practices. This is, in fact, the consistent ruling of the Orthodox military rabbinate in the US armed forces, for example and it has also ruled regarding religiously observant students who live in dormitories at universities with non-Jews and non-observant Jews. There is no real basis, then, for the author's warning that acceptance of the petition will infringe on the religious freedom of observant soldiers and prevent them from enlisting or of being on base during Passover. No observant person should feel religiously barred from serving in units where other soldiers eat according to their own choice in their private domain.

At the heart of this petition is a principled debate on the question of whether Israel will truly integrate its dual identity as a democratic and Jewish state, as the petitioners aspire, or whether it will allow the Orthodox Rabbinate and politicians to force the shaping of Israel according to Orthodox Torah law. Two years ago, the Court already ruled in a previous petition by the Secular Forum, declaring the prohibition on bringing chametz to hospitals on Passover and using security personnel there to search the effects of visitors and personnel for chametz illegal. At the time, the Chief Rabbinate warned that observant Jews would not be able to be hospitalized during Passover, and unsurprisingly, this was shown to be an empty threat. The Supreme Court’s ruling was based on legal principles that we hope the author can respect and support: freedom of religion and freedom from religion, personal autonomy, human dignity, free choice and more. This is exactly what the court is for: to protect individual freedoms and human dignity!
Her claims that this is a "false conflict", aimed at secular coercion of a negligible minority over the majority, ignores the many detailed accounts provided in the petition by soldiers who were humiliated and suffered actual harm due to searches conducted by the IDF and Military Rabbinate and confiscations of food and equipment starting already a week or two before Passover.

Moreover, contrary to her claim regarding violation of public will, both the Hiddush commissioned poll in March of this year and a survey conducted by Bar Ilan University last year show that the majority of the adult Jewish public support allowing non-observant soldiers to possess and consume chametz in their private domain during Passover, as the petition seeks.

The time has come for both foreign organizations such as the Lawfare Project and for cynical Israeli politicians to heed the will of the public majority and respect the fundamental principles of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state: freedom of religion and conscience!

Adv. Uri Regev is a Reform rabbi who heads Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel, Inc.