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Citizens, clerics and neo-liberalism

Illegal generators in Jerusalem's Haredi neighborhoods are a sign of religion's encroachment on the state

Here’s an example of what’s wrong with church-state relations in Israel today – and why so many like me are frustrated.

It is estimated that more than 100 illegal generators are in use in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Greedy religious extremists have convinced thousands of their neighbors that the electricity provided by the National Electric Company is not “kosher” and in its stead offer the use of their privately owned – and pricey – generators. These pieces of equipment have been declared a danger to the public by the Electric Company, the Ministry for Infrastructure, the Fire Department, safety experts and finally, by the courts. Yet the local government has enlisted every possible excuse to avoid disconnecting and banning them. In other words, the mayor doesn’t want to have to confront the fanatics. Religious mavericks do what they want — even at the expense of people’s safety — and the politicians shirk their responsibilities.

In the past, relations between church and state brought bloody historical clashes to mind: the Crusades, the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the attacks on the clergy during the French Revolution. Most people probably believe this kind of conflict is over, with modern democracies having developed a variety of sorts of arrangements entailing some degree of separation between church and state that has led, for the most part, to a stand-off. After post-communist Boris Yeltsin’s publicized visit to church and Barack Obama’s flaunting of his Christian credentials during his election campaign it might seem that peace and reconciliation now characterize what used to be a contentious relationship. Yet these images are deceptive.

Today’s battles for control and allegiance are indeed less violent, or less overtly so, than Henry II’s sending men to stab the incompliant Thomas Becket. But today a new trend in the struggle for supremacy has emerged. If in the past elites confronted elites, with royalty and clergy at loggerheads, today those who hold power take on the people directly instead of battling one another. The Pope doesn’t use his soldiers to face off with the Italian army; he can direct his appeal straight to the citizens and explain to them why they mustn’t buy condoms. Religious leaders in the U.S. don’t just lash out at politicians for allowing abortions: they draft their followers to lobby the legislature. The British sociologist Michael Mann wrote in “The Dark Side of Democracy” of the less positive development of democratization — that wars brought down to the people are what has morphed into ethnic cleansing. Similarly, the democratization of religion means everyone with cable or satellite TV can get an explanation as to why he or she must oppose same-sex marriage or help reconquer the Temple Mount. The political and religious elites don’t clash, they collaborate.

State authorities who once held off religious encroachment nowadays stand aside. Just as the state has stepped back from regulating the economy, it many places it has completely disappeared in limiting clerical meddling. As concerns grow regarding the effect of multi-nationals on national labor organizations, religious forces – perhaps the most powerful multi-national bodies – threaten national control and protection. Pakistani leaders are loathe to reconquer the large swathes of their country and thereby millions of their citizens to are left to the mercy of Al Qaeda. Even in France politicians are wont to ignore female circumcision and other egregious violations of human rights. Ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York now send women to sit in the back seats of buses without compunction – or the intervention of the law. People may think that tensions between church and state have been resolved, just as people of the First International thought that nationalism was a thing of the past, but they are wrong. The conflict has just taken a new form, and it is no less insidious than earlier ones.

In many ways, religion is strikingly appropriate for this modern age. As peoples everywhere bemoan a lack of leadership, religious groups offer leaders with clear messages and the safety of a hierarchy. At a time when governments are cutting back on social services and communities are weakening, many religious groups offer charity and social frameworks. In an age of massive migrations and dislocations, religion unlike states is not limited to any geographical location. Its resurgence occurs at a time when states are weakening and neo-liberalism has spread from economics to every sphere of life. In addition, the separation of church and state has long seemed a healthy, liberal solution to the problem of the twin sources of power.

Yet while it is a positive development that after centuries in which religious and political elites hashed out their differences in a brutal manner, each is seeking its own source of strength.  On the other hand, neither does one serve to protect the citizen from the other. The church in Poland was an important refuge for the rebels of Solidarity and the revolutionaries in South America; today there are no such havens. Rather, both religious and political powers abuse their strength, and the individual citizen is at the mercy of both. Religious extremism perhaps need not be fought outright by governments, but neither should it be given free rein.

In Jerusalem, we don’t want to initiate a holy war among the Jewish sects or any others. We do, however – as in many other places in the world today — need some politicians who aren’t afraid to pull the plug on the “kosher” generators. It’s simply dangerous to leave them unattended.

About the Author
Dr Laura Wharton is a member of Jerusalem's City Council as a representative of Meretz and an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University. Born in the U.S., she immigrated to Israel after receiving a B.A. in the Department of Government at Harvard University and then served a full term in the Israel Defense Forces. She subsequently completed a Master's degree and a Ph.D. at Hebrew University. She is a mother of two and has been living in Jerusalem for more than a decade.