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Labor Action, 27 February 1950


Al Findley

Israeli Ruling Parties in Dispute
on Religious Schools, Polygamy


From Labor Action, Vol. 14 No. 9, 27 February 1950, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


A minor Kulturkampf is raging in Israel today. The attempt of the Jewish orthodox elements to impose Judaism as the state religion, with the orthodox rabbinate as its sole authority, has been festering for some time. The influx of thousands of Yemenite and other Oriental Jews has brought the issue out in the open.

Israel has four separate school systems. There is the labor network which is unofficially diyvded into two sections, one controlled by the Mapai (labor party) and the other by the Mapam (left-wing but pro-Stalinist). There is the General Zionist or bourgeois school system. There are two official religious-orthodox educational organizations, one run by the moderate. clericals, the Mizrachi, and the other by the more extreme Agudath Israel.

The orthodox leaders demand a monopoly of education in the immigrant camps of Oriental Jews. They have unleashed a world-wide campaign to force the Israeli government to accede to their demands.

As part of their propaganda, they have been spreading the charge that in some camps the orthodox schools were totally excluded. This untruth has been widely publicized in the U.S., but not in Israel, where the facts are known.

The pressure of the rabbinate and its American friends has produced some results. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion has suggested a compromise formula. The clericalists would get a monopoly on the education of ALL children in the camps of the Yemenite immigrants but other Oriental Jews would be able to choose their educational system by referendum.

The compromise was accepted by the moderate clericalists (the Mizrachi) and could have been imposed on the others. Fortunately, the Mapai rejected this capitulation and demanded a referendum in ALL camps. No final decision has been taken.

For some cynics all that is involved is a struggle for power by the various political parties which want to capture the loyalty of the young immigrants. There is no doubt that party politics is involved. But much more is at stake. The entire question of the relation of synagogue and state in Israel is involved here. The separation of church and state as against clerical domination is the real issue.

Polygamy Debated

Another aspect of this important question is now being debated in the Knesseth, Israeli parliament.

The Oriental Jews accept polygamy and many of them maintain harems. Child marriages, as early as twelve for girls and thirteen for boys, are an everyday occurrence. It is also not uncommon for a father to sell his daughter in marriage to an older man. There is no question of consent involved since the children are never consulted. Many of these child brides have run away from their “husbands” and are being sheltered in Mapai’s children’s homes.

A bill has been introduced in the Knesseth by a Mapai delegate, Miss Maiman, which would regulate marriages and set the age limit at eighteen.

This elementary law was opposed on three grounds: (1) The government has no authority to pass ANY laws regulating marriage, since marriage is a personal matter and is the sole prerogative of the rabbinate and the religious courts of the other religions. (2) The Yemenite deputy maintained that the law has no right to prohibit or limit something that the Bible and Talmudic code permit. (3) The moderates insisted that the age be reduced to sixteen, since the rabbinate is now (after the bill has been presented) willing to prohibit marriages before the age of sixteen.

Some moderate clericals are disappointed in that the rabbinate waited for the Mapai to take the initiative and only acted under pressure. It seems that the rabbinate has learned something from this development. A convocation meeting in the first week of February “outlawed" polygamy and “threatened excommunication" against those who practise polygamy and rabbis who perform the rites for polygamous marriages.

Polygamy, however, is still legal in Israel, which calls itself a “progressive,” “socialist” and “democratic” state. Since the religious courts of the denomination control marriages, the religion one belongs to determines the status of women and the number of wives a man may have. A Mohammedan can still legally practise polygamy in Israel.

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