Yesterday, I happen to come across an article in the English internet version of Israel’s Yedioth Ahronot, reporting that an Israeli couple was denied entry into a park in Afula because they had leavened food, or chametz as it is called in Hebrew (see: Visitors barred entry to Afula park because they had chametz). Since it’s now Passover, many Jews traditionally abstain from eating leavened food in order to honour and remember the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. In fact, as the article illustrates, there are actually far-reaching laws in Israel against displaying food with chametz or bringing it into public places during the Passover holiday. The problem is that there are many Jews, including myself, who could care less as to whether they consume food with chametz during Passover. Too bad for us secular people though, because Israel’s Passover laws apply to all Jews, not just the religious ones. The story of a couple not being allowed to enter a park with chametz during Passover is just another episode in Israel’s seemingly endless conflict between religion and state.
Bear in mind, of course, that the religion vs. state debate is one that plays out in virtually all countries. It takes on a more unique significance in Israel, however, because Israel is home to so many of the world’s important religious sites, especially for adherents of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It isn’t called the Holy Land for nothing. Israel also defines itself as a Jewish state, which for some means a state in which Jewish religious laws are enforced. But this is an interpretation of the Jewish state concept that I and many others do not agree with. Yes, Israel has many holy places and the state has a responsibility to protect and preserve the holy sites in accordance with the religious traditions of which they are a part. And yes, Israel is a Jewish state, but this does not mean that it should be imposing Jewish religious laws on its population, Jewish or otherwise. I personally have a different interpretation of what a Jewish state is. In fact, I would prefer that the State of Israel focus more on promoting a less ethnically-based Israeli identity rather than obsessing over its Jewishness. For me, the concept of a “Jewish state” simply means protecting the State of Israel as the embodiment of Jewish independence and ensuring that Israel continues to welcome Jews from around the world seeking protection from persecution based on their Jewishness. It does not mean a state that imposes any particular interpretation of what it means to be Jewish on its population.
I am of the opinion that Israel needs to do away with imposing religious laws on its citizens, especially since many of the people who support such religious restrictions are not loyal to the country in the first place. Indeed, some of the folks that don’t want anyone working on Shabbat are the same folks who burn Israeli flags on independence day. They’re the same people who threaten women and even spit on them for not dressing modestly enough. Why should we have to impose religious laws on the Israeli public at large to appease these subversive and disgusting elements of our population? The answer is that we certainly shouldn’t have to.
So I say, let’s allow Israelis to visit the country’s parks during Passover without having some guard check for chametz as if he was a member of the Jewish Taliban. Let’s allow civil marriages and divorce so that our citizens are not at the mercy of religious courts. Let’s allow public transportation to run on Shabbat and other holidays. And let’s end the Orthodox monopoly on Jewish religious affairs in Israel. Now of course, I understand that doing these things would severely breach the status quo religious arrangements Israel has had since independence, but so what? These arrangements are nothing but chains put around Israeli citizens by theocratic would-be dictators, many of whom do not support the existence of the State of Israel anyway.