Pre-State Jewish Life
the rule of the Ottoman Empire (1517-1917), the religious communities in Palestine
operated under the so-called "millet system," whereby each religion determined
issues of personal status such as marriage, divorce, burial and inheritance according to
its own religious practices. Under this system, the Jewish, Christian and Muslim
communities established religious councils, generally appointed by the Ottoman government.
Under the British Mandate (1917-1948), Ottoman religious community policy continued.
The Jewish community of Palestine was headed by a Rabbinical Council, led by Sephardic and
Ashkenazic chief rabbis, who were elected by an assembly of rabbis and lay people. The
Council in turn appointed members of rabbinical courts throughout the country. Under
Ottoman and then British rule, Rabbinical Councils were comprised solely of Orthodox
clergy. Marriage, divorce, and other issues of personal status were determined strictly on
the basis of halacha (Jewish law).
It is important to note that while the Conservative and Reform movements in Europe and
North America were enjoying tremendous growth during this period, these movements had
little or no presence in Israel until the 1960s. In pre-State and early-State years
debates on religious issues were between Orthodox (Zionist and non-Zionist) and secular.