JERUSALEM (RNS) News that Israel’s religious establishment is compiling an international Jewish database will exacerbate ongoing tensions between Diaspora Jews and Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious authorities, American rabbis warn.
The database, which an official of Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs announced during a European rabbis conference in March, is intended to simplify the bureaucratic marriage registration process in Israel by placing all Jews and their personal details – whether they are married, divorced, converts, the names of their rabbis – on one centralized list.
The database has hit a raw nerve outside of Israel because many Diaspora rabbis are not recognized by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, the sole arbiter of Jewish law in Israel.
Rabbi Seth Farber fears that the database, which is presumably being compiled with the cooperation of the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, will exclude many Jews and compromise the privacy of those on the list. Farber is director of the Jerusalem-based organization ITIM, which assists Jews who are dealing with the religious bureaucracy in Israel.
“Israel’s religious establishment is trying to exert its authority in Israel and extend it internationally in the guise of efficiency,” Farber said. “And what are the criteria for Jewishness? Which rabbis will determine who is Jewish and who isn’t? Who will be able to access the data? And what about the vast majority of Jews who aren’t ultra-Orthodox or even Orthodox but who are Jewish according to Jewish law?”
Farber estimated that up to 90 percent of Diaspora Jews could be excluded from the database because the majority of them aren’t Orthodox.
Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbinical group in the U.S., told the Jewish Week that while the RCA “appreciates” the goal to streamline wedding registration, “we’re … concerned about the mistakes that inevitably appear on these lists, which can have negative consequences on people at the most vulnerable time of their lives.”
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said the rabbinate has never accepted the authority of non-Orthodox rabbis and he asserted that an international database “will only make matters worse.”
Jules Polonetsky, CEO of Future of Privacy Forum, a think tank that advocates for responsible use of data, told the Jewish Week that it is impossible to ensure the privacy of those in the database.
“If Israeli officials think they can keep this information secure, they are mistaken, Polonetsky said. “From a security point of view this is a disaster waiting to happen.”
A ministry spokesman said it is doing everything possible to prevent a security breach.
Polonetsky said he was “shocked” when he heard about the database.
Israel’s religious authorities “clearly have a zero sense of history when it comes to how databases have been used to oppress Jews over the years. The Germans used detailed databases classifying people by religion and address and tracked down Jews door by door.”
Polonetsky said that Jewish organizations including synagogues and philanthropic organizations in Europe and even in the U.S., where privacy laws are weaker, might be breaking the law if they hand over data about their members or donors, either because doing so violates privacy clauses or due to local laws or regulations.
(Michele Chabin is RNS’ Jerusalem correspondent)