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Nail in the Coffin: Fighting for Pluralism in Israel

Nail in the Coffin: Fighting for Pluralism in Israel

Three years ago, Zvi Ginsburg came to the Israel Religious Action Center after the death of his wife. Because the family did not want the usual burial ceremony in Israel, which is performed by ultra-Orthodox burial societies and takes place without a casket, her funeral took place in a civil cemetery in a nearby city. He came to us because it grated him that unlike all burials in Israel, which are for free, he had to pay more than $5,000 because there are no civil cemeteries in their city.

Every city in Israel has its own cemetery, operated by a religious burial society which provides free ultra-Orthodox burial for all of the city's residents. In 1996, Israel enacted the Alternative Civil Burial Law that gave every citizen the option to be buried in a civil cemetery at the state's expense. However, you would have to live in a city with a civil cemetery to be able to exercise this right and there are still only a handful of civil cemeteries through the country.

IRAC filed a civil suit against the Ministry of Religious Services to reimburse Zvi and his family for the money they had to spend. We claimed that if the law offers a state-funded alternative to ultra-Orthodox religious burial, the state should make a reasonable effort to ensure that people can exercise this right. We filed a similar suit on behalf of Chava Lev, who was charged more than $4,000 to bury her husband in a civil cemetery.

This month, the court ruled in our favor on both cases and chastised the state for failing to fulfill its duties under the law.

No family should be forced to make the choice between paying thousands of dollars or burying their loved one in a religious ceremony that they do not want. Jewish tradition teaches us that a society is judged by how it treats the poor, the stranger, and the widow. Israel is not holding itself to these standards, nor to its own laws, when widowers are being charged large sums of money to bury their spouses in a civil cemetery, and such sums are not being charged for religious burials.

This issue resonates with many Israelis. Our victory was the cover story on the front page of Ha'aretz in Hebrew. We have successfully taken the government to task on the issue of civil burials and many other issues of religion and state, and we fully intend to continue addressing the ultra-Orthodox monopoly in Israel, one victory at a time.

Anat Hoffman is the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Jewish Movement in Israel. She is also the chairwoman of Women of the Wall, a group of Jewish women and men from around the world who strive to achieve the right of women to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Anat Hoffman
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