American Conservatives, Jewish Law, and Israel’s New Abortion Policy

Israel’s new abortion law, providing for state funding of abortions for women between the ages of 20 and 33, further liberalizes the country’s already liberal abortion laws. But according to the Times of Israel, the change has barely caused a blip. The paper reports:

Israel has always had a liberal stance on abortion, allowing women facing medical emergencies or those who are victims of rape or abuse to receive subsidies to help them terminate their pregnancies. Outside of those regulations, women can apply for abortions for reasons ranging from an emotional or mental threat caused by the pregnancy or for not being married to the baby’s father. All women who seek to end a pregnancy must appear before a three-member committee to state their case, but 98 percent of requests are approved. Women under the age of 20 or over the age of 40 were also previously eligible for subsidized abortions, regardless of the reason.

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Among Israel’s religious right wing, there have been low grumblings of protest against the new law, but for a nation where a woman’s hemline or her seat on a public bus can set off a firestorm, the response has been surprisingly muted.

Dr. Eli Schussheim, chairman of the pro-life group Efrat, likened the decision to theft, saying that by allocating funding for non-medically necessary abortions, the committee “is stealing… from sick people… and giving the money instead as a prize to 6,000 negligent women.”

His sentiments were echoed by Rabbi David Stav, head of the relatively liberal Tzohar group of Orthodox rabbis, who said there is “no question” that in the absence of a medical emergency, abortion is against Jewish law.

It is highly unlikely, however, that Israel will soon see protests that even come near those that target abortion clinics in the United States, where the legality of pregnancy termination remains one of that nation’s most polarizing issues.

But American reporters are curious: if US Christian Zionists, who have significant overlap with the US anti-choice movement, love Israel so much, shouldn’t they be up in arms about the country adopting one of the world’s most expansive abortion policies? 

The Daily Beast’s Jonathan Krohn set out to find out (“You would expect conservative groups to go ballistic when it comes to taxpayer funding of abortions,” reads his lede) and got a number of vague answers which suggested that US anti-choicers don’t feel particularly inclined to export the abortion wars to Israel. But Americans United for Life’s Charmaine Yoest, who is Christian, ventured into a suggestion that perhaps the Israelis were getting their own religious laws wrong:

Dr. Charmaine Yoest, the CEO of Americans United for Life (AUL), decided to use Jewish law as a defense, saying “In a meaningful passage, the Talmud teaches that ‘Whosoever preserves a single soul…, [it is] as though he had preserved a complete world.’ Unborn lives are rich with possibilities and worth saving and government should never be used to harm life and harm women.”

Despite Yoest’s attempt to go talmudic, most streams of Judaism reject the notion that life begins at conception, and focus on the health and well-being of the pregnant woman in assessing the morality of abortion. Nancy Kaufman, the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, which is pro-choice, told me in an interview that she found it “ironic” that in the United States, where there is separation of church and state, activists want to impose their religion through anti-abortion laws, but that in Israel, where there is no barrier between religion and state, abortion is merely a matter of health and safety, and its coverage and availability a part of the country’s uncontroversial system of universal health care.

Kaufman said Israel’s liberal abortion policy had been “ingrained” since the state’s founding. On the American conservatives’ silence, she said, “most of the American anti-choice groups are not made up of Jewish women of any stripe, so most don’t really care what Israel’s policy is.”

On the other hand, the views of Eli Schussheim, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Israeli anti-abortion group Efrat, are controversial in Israel, as are the group’s activities. As I wrote in Moment magazine last year:

In January, according to Haaretz, two members of Israel’s chief rabbinate issued a letter of support for [Efrat], praising it for “making the wider public aware of the extreme seriousness involved in killing fetuses, which is like actual murder.”

A week later, Benny Lau, the religious Zionist rabbi of Jerusalem’s Rambam Synagogue, retorted that equating abortion with murder was “irresponsible” and that “‘abortion is murder’ is neither rabbinical law nor Judaism.” He added, “Taking our Torah in the direction of Christian Catholic canon law is a terrible mistake.” (According to Haaretz, Efrat’s director denied the organization had ever used language equating abortion with murder.) Lau complained that on abortion, “There is no more complexity, there is no more discussion. We have become shallow, Republicans, Catholics and Jews.”

As Rabbis Raymond A. Zwerin and Richard J. Shapiro write in a piece for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, according to Jewish law, “a fetus is not considered a full human being and has no juridical personality of its own.” Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America [now T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights], has explained that Jewish thought attempts “to negotiate the delicate distinctions among something with no person-ness whatsoever (like a mole), a potential life, and a fully formed human being (the pregnant woman). It is clear that the woman’s life always comes first.”

That’s not to say that there isn’t an anti-abortion movement in Israel, but it chiefly consists of Efrat and the tiny efforts of the tiny community of Messianic Jews, whose efforts, in turn, are supported by American conservative Christians. To the extent American evangelicals are supporting the growth of Messianic Judaism in Israel, it appears to be far more focused on bringing Jews to Christ than challenging Israel’s abortion laws. The Messianic Jews focus their efforts on another American export: the crisis pregnancy center.

But the crisis pregnancy center is not the phenomenon that it is here, and that has to do with Israeli attitudes toward abortion (not controversial) and religion: the core of the crisis pregnancy center is salvation. It just doesn’t translate.

When I was in Israel reporting on Messianic Jews in 2012, I met a woman at a conference in Tel Aviv, Sandy Shoshani, who ran a crisis pregnancy center in Jerusalem. The conference was not a Jewish event, but rather one aimed at converting Jews to Messianic Judaism, or belief in Jesus as the Messiah. When in Jerusalem a few days later, I sought out Be’ad Chaim (the group’s rough translation of “pro-life”). I stopped by the nondescript office building of dentists, doctors, and lawyers, and rang the bell at the locked third floor office. No one answered. It did not appear to be doing a booming business, or any kind of business at all.

Be’ad Chaim’s website has a section on “Abortion in Jewish Thought,” which links to just one 2007 article quoting the Chief Rabbinate on the performing of abortions when the mother’s health is not in danger: “The rabbis believe that these types of abortions are a grave sin which may even delay the coming of the messiah.” Which of course is some interesting selectivity, given that the Messianic Jews are of course waiting for a very different messiah, one I’m pretty confident the Chief Rabbinate would not find kosher.

More crucially, though, the Chief Rabbinate hardly reflects the views of Israelis. As rabbinical student Daniel Raphael Silverstein wrote recently in the New York Jewish Week, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, “run by a narrow clique of haredi [ultra-Orthodox] rabbis, solely for the interests of that clique,” does not “represent the interests of the Jewish People, be they in Israel or the Diaspora.”

While I was in Akko, Israel, interviewing Guy Cohen, the Messianic Jewish leader of Harvest of Asher, Cohen introduced me to the counselor at his ministry’s crisis pregnancy center. It is stocked with diapers and baby supplies, as you might see at a US crisis pregnancy center, on which these are obviously modeled, but there are no clients. “She is advising them, and helping them not [have an] abortion,” and providing them with supplies they may need, Cohen told me. The counselor claimed she has served more than 70 clients, adding that word of the center’s existence is spread via the yellow pages, the Internet, and the distribution of brochures at the local train station. The brochures, Cohen assures me, do not mention Jesus, as proselytizing in Israel is illegal when done in exchange for a material enticement, or to minors without their parents’ consent.  

The Messianic Jewish groups that have adopted American conservative norms and outreach are a tiny minority in Israel. Be’ad Chaim makes headlines in American outlets like the Christian Broadcasting Network, whose viewers like to hear both about missionizing Israelis and bringing American anti-abortion attitudes to the Holy Land. As Be’ad Chaim co-founder Tony Sperandeo told CBN, “We want to remember that the shedding of innocent blood brings a curse and Jesus came – Yeshua came – to bring a blessing.” That plays well to an American evangelical audience, which might view these efforts as more meaningful and effective than fighting an uphill political battle in a country whose only true salvation will not, in their view, come from politics.