The basis of all religious institutions in Israel dates back to the Ottoman Empire (1402-1921) and its system of confessional group autonomy called the millet system. Under the millet, each religious group was allowed limited independence in running its own community under a recognized (usually religious) leader who represented the community politically to the imperial authorities. Matters of law relating to personal status--marriage, divorce, inheritance, legitimacy of children--were also left to community control, so long as they did not involve a Muslim, in which case the sharia (Islamic law) courts took precedence.
The Jewish community in Ottoman Palestine was represented by its chief rabbi, called the Hakham Rashi or Rishon Le Tziyyon (the First in Zion), who was a Sephardi. The Orthodox Ashkenazim in Ottoman Palestine, who never formed a unified community, resented Sephardi preeminence. The secular European Jews who began to arrive in large numbers after 1882 ignored the constraints of the millet system and the standing of the chief rabbi and his council as best they could.
Under their League of Nations Mandate over Palestine, the British retained this system of religious courts (the Jewish Agency became the political representative of the Yishuv as a whole). In recognition of the growing numerical preponderance of Ashkenazim, however, the British recommended the formation of a joint chief rabbinate, one Sephardi and one Ashkenazi, and a joint chief rabbinical council. This system was implemented in 1921, together with a hierarchical court structure composed of local courts, regional appellate courts, and the joint Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem. After Israel's independence--even with the establishment of autonomous secular and military judiciaries--this system of rabbinical courts prevailed. An addition to the system was a Ministry of Religious Affairs under the control of the religious political party that sat in coalition to form the government, originally Mizrahi and later the National Religious Party.
In 1988, in addition to the two chief rabbis and their Chief Rabbinical Council, local chief rabbis were based in the larger cities (again, generally two, one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi) and on local religious councils. These councils (under the Ministry of Religious Affairs) functioned as administrative bodies and provided religious services. They supervised dietary laws (kashrut) in public institutions, inspected slaughterhouses, maintained ritual baths, and supported synagogues--about 5,000 of them--and their officials. They also registered marriages and divorces, that is, legal matters of personal status that came under their jurisdiction.
Israel's Proclamation of Independence guarantees freedom of religion for all groups within the society. Thus, the Ministry of Religious Affairs also supervised and supported the local religious councils and religious courts of the non-Jewish population: Christian, Druze, and Muslim. As in Ottoman times, the autonomy of the confessional groups is maintained in matters of religion and personal status, although all courts are subject to the jurisdiction of the (secular) Supreme Court. (This was true technically even of Jewish rabbinical courts, but outright confrontation or imposition of secular appellate review was, in fact, avoided.) Among Christians, the Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Latin, Maronite, and Arab Anglican groups operated their own courts. In 1962 a separate system of Druze courts was established. Sunni Muslim judges (qadis) presided over courts that followed sharia.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs also exerted control over Muslim religious endowments (waqfs), and for this reason has been a political presence in Muslim communities. The ministry traditionally was a portfolio held by the National Religious Party, which at times also controlled the Arab departments in the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Social Welfare. This helped to account for the otherwise paradoxical fact that some Arabs--8.2 percent of voters in 1973--supported the neo-Orthodox, Zionist, Nationalist Religious Party in elections.
Besides Christian, Muslim, and Druze courts, there was yet another system of Orthodox Jewish courts that ran parallel to, and independently of, the rabbinate courts. These courts served the ultra-Orthodox (non-Zionist Agudat Israel as well as anti-Zionist Neturei Karta and other groups) because the ultra-Orthodox had never accepted the authority or even the legitimacy of the official, state-sponsored (pro-Zionist, neo-Orthodox) rabbinate and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. In place of the rabbinate and Rabbinical Council, Agudat Israel and the community it represented were guided by a Council of Torah Sages, which functioned also as the highest rabbinical court for the ultra-Orthodox. The members of this council represent the pinnacle of religious learning (rather than political connections, as was alleged for the rabbinate) in the ultra-Orthodox community. The council also oversaw for its community inspectors of kashrut, ritual slaughterers, ritual baths, and schools--all independent of the rabbinate and the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
In 1983 this state of affairs was even further complicated when the former Sephardi chief rabbi, Ovadia Yoseph, angry at not being reelected to this post, withdrew from the rabbinate to set up his own Sephardic ultra-Orthodox council and political party, called Shas (an acronym for Sephardic Torah Guardians). Shas ran successfully in the 1983 Jerusalem municipal elections, winning three of twenty-one seats, and later in the national Knesset (parliament) elections in 1984, where it cut deeply into Agudat Israel's hold on ultra-Orthodox Oriental voters. Shas won four seats in 1984, Agudat Israel only two. In this context, Shas's importance lay in the fact that it split the Oriental ultra-Orthodox from Ashkenazi domination under Agudat Israel, adding yet another institutionalized variety of Israeli traditional Judaism to an already complicated mix.
The practical result of all these separate and semiautonomous judiciaries based on religious grounds was that, for a large area of law dealing with matters of personal status, there was no civil code or judiciary that applied to all Israeli citizens. Marriages, divorces, adoptions, wills, and inheritance were all matters for adjudication by Christian clerics, Muslim qadis, or dayanim (sing., dayan; Jewish religious judge). An essential practical difficulty was that, in strictly legal terms, marriages across confessional lines were problematic. Another result was that citizens found themselves under the jurisdiction of religious authorities even if they were themselves secular. This situation has posed the greatest problem for the Jewish majority, not only because most Jewish Israelis are neither religiously observant nor Orthodox, but also because the hegemony of Orthodox halakah has from time to time forced the raising of issues of fundamental concern to modern Israel. Foremost among these has been the issue of "Who is a Jew?" in the Jewish state.
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