Imagine, for a moment, that Israel finally grows fed up of being lectured that it cannot be both Jewish and democratic. It might then attempt to model itself on the United Kingdom, hoping that by copy-pasting its approach to religion and state from an exemplar of liberal democracy, it would at long last win acceptance from the family of nations.
So, what would change?
Firstly, the Knesset would grant the national and municipal chief rabbis the automatic right to sit in the Knesset as ‘MKs Spiritual‘. The Knesset would open every morning with a recitation of the Shema, and MKs would pray to God to give them guidance. Secular and non-Jewish MKs would be allowed to miss the official opening of the parliamentary day, should they wish to do so.
The presidential inauguration ceremony would take place at the Western Wall. After being anointed by the Chief Rabbi using holy oil, the president would swear to “do his utmost to maintain the Laws of God and the Torah“. After kiddush, the state’s rabbis would swear their loyalty to the president, and he would assume the title מגן הדת (‘Defender of the Faith‘), to be branded on coins next to his image.
It would be a constitutional requirement for the President to be Jewish, and an Orthodox Jew at that. This is because the president would become Supreme Governor of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Religious minorities should rest assured, however, that this position would be purely symbolic: although the president would be a religious figure, the state would remain a liberal democracy “for all its citizens”.
The present secular national anthem would be rewritten to include reference to God: Muslims and Christians would be expected to sing along with a request for adonai to bless the State of Israel.
All schools would be required to open the day with an act of “collective worship“: lessons will not begin until everyone has sung shiru lashem and shir hama’alot. If non-Jewish students feel uncomfortable, their parents could ask for them to be separated from their classmates until afterwards.
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem would institute the singing of Birkat Hamazon after dinners in the university cafeteria: it would be compulsory for Christians and Muslims to attend, though they would not be forced to sing. All responsibility for student welfare would be handed over to the campus rabbi. At graduation ceremonies, students would be blessed by in the name of the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” unless they explicitly opt out of the full ceremony. This would be part of an initiative to catch up with Oxford and Cambridge in the world league tables by copying their practices.
Local councils would be allowed to begin official meetings with prayers, able to summon non-religious councillors to attend: if the High Court decides this is illegal, the government would fast-track a law to reverse this ruling. As the Prime Minister said recently, “We are a Jewish country and we should not be afraid to say so.”
The Supreme Court would roll out changes too. The judiciary’s motto would become יהוה וזכותי (‘God and my right’), to be featured prominently above all court benches. The new legal year would be marked by a prayer service in Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue, although whether Arab judges count towards a minyan remains a constitutional grey-area.
Judaism would, in short, become the established religion of the State of Israel.
Can you imagine the outrage! The UN would convene an extraordinary session devoted to searing condemnations of Israel. Foreign governments would decry the move as racist and exclusionary, designed to alienate and intimidate minorities. Every human rights NGO on the planet would publish a special report on how Arabs have officially been made second-class citizens in the law. It does not matter how earnestly Israel might protest that it was only following the Western example on Synagogue and State relations. The foreign offices of Europe would sternly insist that practices that clash with democratic principles are acceptable only if they have already been tradition for hundreds of years. “Do as I say, not as I do,” their diplomats would tut. This Jewish theocracy would not be tolerated.
But hold on a second.
For that would not be the end of Israel’s British-inspired reforms. Controversially, Israel would allow civil marriage, permitting weddings for persons of no religion, couples of different religions and, in a radical move, between divorcees and people with the surname ‘Cohen’. The Ministry of Religious Affairs would be abolished; the state would have no say on conversions to Judaism or any faith. The Chief Rabbinate would lose its monopoly over Jewish life, and Reform and Conservative rabbis could officiate marriages and burials by themselves. Buses and trains would run on Shabbat. It would be legal to sell bread in markets during Passover. Israel would insist on a core national curriculum, forcing schools to teach more than just religious studies.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad after all.