Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) Legal Department director, Orly Erez-Likhovski’s vision for Israel is that of a “more just and equal society, treating every person with dignity and equality in the spirit of the Biblical verse that says God created humans in His image. So we challenge discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation, sexual orientation, and national origin. We try to eradicate all those discriminatory practices.”
A tall order in today’s Israel and in a context that is “becoming worse by the minute,” according to Orly. “The political situation is very disturbing as is the state of human rights in Israel. And of course, COVID-19 is very troubling…
“It’s been very hard to achieve social change through the Knesset,” she continues. “Our strongest victories are through the courts, which continue to fulfill their role in protecting human rights.”
Just the week before speaking to NIFC, Orly and IRAC had what she calls “an amazing victory.” Responding to a petition IRAC filed in 2016, the Supreme Court ordered disciplinary proceedings against Tzfat Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliahu for racist incitement, political and partisan expressions, and extreme and rude criticism of the courts. (Among the 100 expressions IRAC submitted to the Court were those comparing Arabs to wild animals and a statement that soldiers and police should kill Arab terrorists even if they are already handcuffed.)
“It’s a groundbreaking decision,” says Orly. “For the first time, the Supreme Court decided that a state-employed rabbi would be subject to disciplinary proceedings. The court drew a red line and said the fact that someone is a rabbi does not allow him to say whatever hurtful things he wants.
“Unfortunately, the phenomenon of rabbis using their post to incite against Arabs or LGBT people is widespread. We work against those using Judaism to promote hatred. People who work in formal posts and as state employees especially should treat all people equally and respectfully.”
Other recent pathbreaking IRAC accomplishments include the outlawing of gender segregation on public buses, airlines, and in cemeteries; the court order to remove signs encouraging women to dress modestly in Beit Shemesh that had led to violence against women; and winning Israel’s first human rights class action suit against the Haredi radio station Kol B’rama, which did not allow women’s voices to be heard on air. After being ordered to pay one million shekels in damages to a state fund that supports programs to empower ultra-Orthodox women, the station now broadcasts women and even employs women anchors. IRAC also persuaded the Supreme Court to disqualify several far right candidates from running for the Knesset in 2019, including Kahanists Michael Ben Ari, Baruch Marzel and Bentzi Gopstein.
Orly says she is most proud of the IRAC achievements against racism, and the exclusion of women and cases that break the Orthodox monopoly, such as the case IRAC brought that led to an alternate kashrut certificate and another to state funding of Reform and Conservative rabbis.
“The Court gave a clear message that the state cannot fund only one stream of Judaism,” she says. “We want an inclusive and respectful Judaism rather than the one of the Chief Rabbinate, which is exclusive and disrespectful. It’s important to us to convey the message that there is more than one way to be Jewish and people can choose.”
In its way, the Supreme Court is also proud of IRAC. Last Rosh Hashanah, the Court published a list of its most important decisions in the previous year – and four of them were IRAC cases.
If she had additional funding, Orly said she would hire more people to monitor and document incidences of racism and gender segregation. She would also devote funds to publicizing IRAC’s work, which she says is well-known in the legal community and the third sector, but not among the general public.
“We do such critical work and it’s important that people know about it,” says Orly. “First of all, to give people hope, and also so people know whom to turn to if they face discrimination.”
To NIFC donors, Orly says: “I hope you are connected to our work and receive our weekly newsletter, which updates our supporters and friends about our activities. People abroad have told me the newsletter is their connection to sanity in Israel. It’s important to be aware of what we do and to continue to support us. We do a really important job that needs to continue.”