Israeli constitution may not protect religious freedom, says Reform rabbi

Though most Jews see Israel as a beacon of democracy, it might come as a surprise to many that the Jewish state does not have a written constitution.

Since 1995, the nation’s legal and political system has operated under a de facto constitution with its established Basic Laws and judicial review. But no formal constitution exists, even though the founders promised one back in 1948.

That could change if the Israel Democracy Institute has its way. For years, the public policy think tank founded in 1991 has been lobbying the nation to adopt a constitution. Bernard Marcus, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, is one of the institute’s prime supporters (and one of the founders of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C).

However, Rabbi Uri Regev, president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, is not so thrilled with the working draft as it stands.

He says the constitution, if adopted, would make permanent the long-standing domination of the Orthodox in matters of religious law, including marriage, divorce, conversion and observance of Shabbat.

“Article 163 of the constitution sets the Supreme Court as the authority of judicial review,” notes Regev. “Article 164, however, says that [currently standing] laws that regulate [religious affairs] should not be voided.”

Regev, a lawyer as well as a rabbi, who was speaking in the Bay Area recently, interprets this to mean that the Israeli Supreme Court cannot weigh in on those matters, thus ensuring permanent Orthodox rule. To Regev, this means the religious rights of the more liberal streams of Judaism may forever be in jeopardy.

But with a glitzy multimillion-dollar media campaign currently promoting the new constitution across the country, Regev fears Israelis will overlook crucial details.

Religious freedom, he says, is “the one element exempted from constitutional protection. We will definitely be fighting such an initiative.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.