End “status quo” religious dictatorship in Israel

In the last few days, I’ve come across more stories out of Israel that have raised my level of anger towards the country’s religious establishment.

The latest story I’ve read was about Haredim threatening protests if Jerusalem’s new cable cars operate on Shabbat (see: Haredim threaten protests over Jerusalem cable car), even though the Jerusalem Municipality issued a statement reassuring everyone, including the anti-Zionist Haredim, that the new transportation initiative would not be operated on the Jewish day of rest.

A few days prior, another story came out about an IDF soldier who faced the wrath of Israel’s dictatorial religious laws because he brought a pork sandwich onto his base. He would have been sent to a military prison for eleven days had it not been for the efforts of his relatives, who spoke to the media, and an unnamed Knesset member who wrote to the defense minister about the incident (see: Punishment Withdrawn for Israeli-American soldier who indulged in pork). I actually remember posting this article on my Facebook page withe the caption, “I’m beginning to wonder, is this Israel or Iran?” Also worth mentioning is that after the IDF cancelled the prison sentence for the secular soldier, the deputy defense minister, himself a rabbi and member of the religious Zionist Beit Yehudi party, scolded the military for backing off from the punishment.

Now of course, I have much more respect for religious Zionists than I do for the anti-Zionist Haredim, because religious Zionists are great contributors to Israeli society. Unlike most Haredim, they work and contribute to the Israeli economy, yet they still devote themselves fiercely to their religion. That being said, however, they do not have the right to impose religious laws or values on Israel’s secular public. It is just as wrong for Israel’s religious Jews to have a penalty imposed on a secular Israeli soldier for eating pork on his base as it would be for secular Israelis to have a religious Israeli soldier be punished for not eating pork.

Unfortunately, stories of secular individuals and government authorities being threatened or punished for breaking or even being suspected of breaking the country’s dictatorial religious laws are commonplace in Israel and have been since the founding of the state in 1948. The reason is the so-called “status quo” arrangement made between Israel’s founding fathers and the fledgling Jewish state’s religious establishment. The arrangement dates back to a letter sent by David Ben-Gurion to leaders representing the Haredi community in which he made assurances that religious laws and ordinances on matters including Shabbat, Kashrut, family law and educational autonomy would be upheld and enforced in what would become the State of Israel. Ben-Gurion, who as we know became Israel’s first prime minister, did this because he needed to ensure a united Jewish stance in favour of the United Nations’ 1947 Palestine partition plan. Without this united stance, the partition plan granting Jews an independent state in the Land of Israel may not have passed. The irony is that the “status quo” arrangement that allowed Israel to be established with international legitimacy is the same thing that is oppressing much of Israel’s public today.

So what if Israel’s government decided to drop Ben-Gurion’s compromise? What if Israel’s leaders suddenly agreed to lift restrictions on activities like shopping and public transportation on Shabbat and other Jewish holidays? Would we be on the fast track to civil war? I don’t think so, and the reason I don’t think so is that even if the Haredim or the religious Zionist community strongly resented Israel’s turn towards secularism, they would still not bite the hand that feeds them. After all, Israel is the one and only Jewish state, and I don’t see either the Haredim or the religious Zionist Jews creating states of their own. How could the Haredim create a country of their own? They won’t even contribute to the society and economy in the country they have now, to say nothing of their refusal to fight for it in the IDF. Why would they act any differently to create a country of their own? And as for the religious Zionists are concerned, there may be some of them who may openly talk of creating a second, more religious Jewish state, but I think most of them will continue to remain loyal Israeli citizens because they know Jewish history better than most people and will remember what happened the last time the Jewish people were split into two states. Hence, they will not want history to repeat itself.

The point I’m trying to make is that for the sake of liberty, Israel needs to end the religious dictatorship that David Ben-Gurion’s “status quo” arrangement has left us with, and we can do this without tearing the country apart. We need to allow ordinary Israeli citizens who want to take the bus on Saturdays or get married without the involvement or the Orthodox rabbinate the right to do so without being threatened or punished. Now I’m sure I’ll get a lot of flak from my fellow Jews who are of a more religious persuasion for what I’m saying here. Indeed, I’ve already gotten responses back telling me that if I or anyone else don’t like Israel’s dictatorial religious laws, we should live somewhere else. My response to these people is that Israel belongs to its secular citizens just as much as it does to its religious ones, so no member of either community should tell members of the other that they should leave just because they share a different view of what it means to live as a Jew in the Jewish State of Israel.

About the Author
Jason Shvili was born and raised in the Greater Toronto Area. He studied at the University of Toronto and now aspires to make a living as a writer after spending more than a decade running his own business. He is proficient in Hebrew and also has working to advanced knowledge of Arabic, French, Italian, Spanish, and Russian.
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