While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is disproportionately covered by Western media outlets, Americans are far less acquainted with the non-violent, internal conflicts between opposing social groups in Israel. Perhaps most prominent, waged through the media and the halls of the Knesset, is the decades-long tension between secular and religious Israelis.
By and large, these two groups coexist without any major problems. And the lines between them are often blurred, with a majority of self-identified secular Israelis observing Jewish rituals that to American Jews often indicate traditional religiosity. However, there are significant divides between the two communities. Secular Israeli Jews often live in different cities and neighborhoods, study in different education systems, and serve in the army in larger numbers than their Ultra-Orthodox/Haredi compatriots.
One of the main reasons that a deep friction exists between these communities is that seven decades after Israel’s founding, these communities are still unsure of their respective places in this country.
For though Israel was reestablished in 1948 explicitly as a Jewish and democratic state, the lack of a constitutional policy that delineates this dual identity means that for seventy one years the different “tribes” of Israeli society have all attempted to impose on the rest of the country their own interpretations of this identity.
The result is a patchwork of conflicting policies on the local and national levels with each administration, city council, and political party interpreting Israel’s core identity in drastically different ways.
The issues at stake affect each Israeli in every facet of their lives. Public transportation, conversion, marriage and divorce, the education system, and the mandatory draft to the military are all issues in the constant tug-of-war between opposing sects of Israeli society.
What’s necessary is the introduction of a Basic Law (an Israeli constitutional law) that explicitly defines what “Jewish and democratic” means. And this definition cannot cater to the vision of just one community or narrative- it must be in keeping with the principles of freedom and historical justice that Zionism embodies.
There are those, mostly secular Israelis on the left of the political spectrum, who believe that Israel must, like the United States, adopt a policy of complete separation of synagogue and state. They believe that Israel maintains its identity as a Jewish and democratic state simply by virtue of being a democracy with a demographic Jewish majority.
Though not without its merits, implementation of this vision would violate one of the main principles of Zionism- that Israel be, not just a state of Jews, but a Jewish state. One of the great blessings of Israel is that is gives the Jewish people the opportunity to express their values and customs on a national level, publicly and through state institutions.
The contrast, as advocated usually by Haredim, is that Israel become something of a Halachic theocracy. For decades those on the right in Israel have proposed scaling back some of Israel’s most fundamental democratic institutions (which is to say nothing of the all-out Haredi assault on women’s rights in the past decade, including the attempted segregation of intercity buses by gender and the removal of women’s voices from the radio). Perhaps the most glaring example of a religious institution that encroaches on individual rights in Israel is the Rabbinate. Created in its modern form in 1947 by David Ben Gurion in an attempt to create a sense of unity and ensure Haredi loyalty to what would soon become the fledgling state of Israel, the Rabbinate is in control of kashrut policy and all issues of personal status like marriage, divorce, and conversion. Each religious community has its own religious courts, with Halachic courts for Israeli Jews and Sharia courts for Israeli Muslims. At their core, these state-sanctioned religious courts are in fundamental violation of democracy.
The true solution, therefore, is the adoption of a Basic Law that would at once mandate and restrict Israeli democracy’s Jewish character to the public sphere.
Such a Basic Law would strip the Rabbinate of its undemocratic control of issues of personal status. And it’s a law that would prevent any further infringements on individual rights like an Israeli version of Iran’s morality police to regulate the length of women’s skirts or to check for non-kosher products in private homes. Though these policies might seem far fetched, the Haredi assault on personal freedoms is ongoing and must be stopped on a constitutional level before Israeli democracy is weakened further.
Alternatively, such a Basic Law would encourage and mandate public Judaism as an essential facet of Israel’s identity. Prevention of public transportation on Shabbat, construction of synagogues on all army bases, the school year revolving around Jewish holidays, and even the annual sale of all the state institutions’ chametz to an Israeli Arab are all expressions of Jewish life on the national level. The Jewish nature of Israel’s public square, not its demographic Jewish majority, is what makes it a Jewish state, not just a state of the Jews.
Implementation of a Basic Law that defines Israel’s Jewish character as a public expression and not as the arbiter of individual rights, will keep Israel from descending into true sectarian conflict and will enshrine its Jewish and democratic identity forever.