BY NOGA GUR-ARIEH / AJT //

On Dec. 24, the rabbinate of Haifa sent out a letter to local hotels and event halls that warned they would lose their kashrut supervision if they held New Year’s Eve or Christmas parties on their premises. The letter, as published on Ynet, read in part:

Noga Gur-Arieh

Noga Gur-Arieh

“No parties celebrating Christian New Year’s Eve should be held on the premises, and our supervision will be further denied to those who disobey our instructions.”

Later, the Chief Rabbinate sent a statement to the Jerusalem Post, saying, “It is forbidden for a Jew to be present in a place where ‘idol worship’ is being conducted.”

Two factors have made this issue especially controversial: the great importance of kashrut supervision to businesses and the prevalence of such Christian or secular holiday celebrations.

The kashrut supervision grants a venue kosher status. Only through kashrut can a hechsher – the Orthodox Union’s kosher product certification – be given to an establishment.

More to the point, a place without a hechsher is a place that no religious person will go, and thus a place that loses its hechsher will probably lose many customers.

It makes sense that the rabbinates’ orders have caused great distress, considering almost all Israelis celebrate New Year’s Eve and many Israelis enjoy Christmas parties. The truth of the matter is that most of us couldn’t tell you today’s Hebrew date.

Personally, I find this sort of oppression that the rabbinate is trying to enforce disgusting. Most of the criticism has come from Israeli citizens and journalists who refused to accept the content of the letters. Our argument is such: Israel is, in fact, the land of the Jews, but it respects all religions.

Furthermore, Haifa is a very heterogeneous city, a true symbol of co-existence. Only 82 percent of Haifans are Jewish. There remain 4 percent who are Muslims, and almost 14 percent who are Christian (Arabs and non-Arabs).

When the nation was founded in 1948, it was promised that in Israel there would be freedom of religion. But when people have no place to celebrate a day that is meaningful to their beliefs, I find it a violation of such freedom.

To me, this is the dark side of Judaism, the one that is so old-fashioned and shut to the outside world that it feels the need to force itself upon others. The fact that Israel is defined as a Jewish state gives the Orthodox rabbinate a lot of power, and because of this, several of our laws reflect more Orthodox values.

For example, marriage and divorce can only be legal if they are committed in the official rabbinate of Israel. Also, some laws discriminate against women: If the husband dies before he and his wife brought a child into the world, his brother must marry her unless she approaches the rabbinate of Israel and requests a halitsa ceremony.

Such biblical rules still exist in 2012!

I was born and raised in Israel, and unfortunately, this means that although I disagree with the Orthodox rules that apply to all Israelis, I have learned to live with them. I’ve had to live with the fact that when it is my time to be married, I must take part in Orthodox ceremonies which I do not agree with, such as going to the mikveh and being “purchased” by my husband through a ketubah (in addition to others).

But what I still cannot live with are the small things some very dark people with lots of power think they are allowed to do here. When a small group of rabbis tell their followers who serve in the IDF to leave a ceremony in which is woman singing, they dismiss and humiliate a person solely because of her gender.

When a rabbinate of a religiously heterogeneous city threatens local businesses to no longer allow celebrations of another religion, they dismiss and humiliate people because of their beliefs.

For years, Jews were hunted because of their religion. They were forced to hide their Jewish characteristics and were marked as “different” or as outsiders. Thus. it only made sense that when the Land of the Jews was founded, it would respect all people.

I understand it is vital to not lose the formal Jewish identity of Israel, but I don’t think that’s necessary. Israel can remain the Land of the Jews while not fully controlled by Orthodox rules. People who don’t believe in such rules must be able to live their daily lives uninterrupted.

I know that losing the Orthodox parts of formal Israeli law – specifically those regarding matters such as marriage – is practically impossible. Such things were agreed upon long before Israel was founded, and could only be done away with if the Orthodox ceased to be a major force in the Knesset, and this will never happen.

Fortunately for this situation, though, every law can be bent a little bit. With time, these very laws were indeed bent a little bit, thanks to some more liberal rabbis.

The threatening letter that was sent by the Haifa rabbinate, however, was not in the name of any law. It was in the name of darkness, of unwillingness to live and let live. This was a new low, and I am glad it received such massive objection and resistance.

Facebook, newspapers, news websites – everyone condemned the letter. Eventually, when it became clear that no one would be willing to follow such orders, the rabbis withdrew their decree. Unfortunately, their harsh words remained, and no apology was made. This battle against darkness is far from being over.

I believe that all people – Orthodox, secular, Jewish, Christian, Muslim or of any other set of beliefs – should be able to live their lives freely. They should be able to do the things they want without forcing others or being forced themselves based on a certain group’s beliefs.

I am glad Israelis still believe in liberalism of life, and are willing to fight to keep Israel in the light.

Noga Gur-Arieh visited the U.S. to work at Camp Coleman after finishing her military service in the IDF. She is now back in Israel, working as a journalist.