We can talk about how it should be, or we can talk about how it is.
To pay lip service to the former, Jews all over the world deserve a say in Israel’s religious affairs. I’d even say a vote. I’ll be the first Israeli to support it.
Israel can’t expect a world full of Jews to continue loving Israel for being the only Jewish state which exists in the world, if it’s not willing to recognize their equality as Jews, or their Judaism as Jewish enough to get married in the world’s only Jewish state.
It’s their world, too, so either Israel is the homeland of all the world’s Jews, or it’s only the home of Israelis. Israel has the right as a democratic state to choose either one, but it can’t have it both ways and expect people to play along, if it’s not even willing to play the game with them.
Judaism is not a national religion. The idea is redundant, not to mention old-fashioned. They are one and the same when you live in a Jewish state. Judaism was present in the world long before Israel – even in the old days, my fellow sons of Abraham – so Judaism is for everyone, wherever you are in the world.
When it comes to being Jewish, Israel’s role should be no more than a groundskeeper. All of world Jewry has the right to be as Jewish, however they want, without their personal Judaism being judged by another Jew. Diaspora Jewry shouldn’t feel alone in this matter (more proof there isn’t a split), as there are many Israeli Jews, some born in Jerusalem, who are not considered Jewish enough to marry in Israel according to the rabbinate.
No other Jew, not even Israel’s most Jewish of Jews, should have the right to control how another Jew prays.
There’s also a flip side to that.
Jews in the Diaspora only deserve a vote on religious affairs concerning Jews in the Diaspora. When it comes to internal Israeli politics, the Palestinians, refugees, security, or anything else other bureaucratic states deal with, only the Israelis who are protected by the Israeli army should get to make decisions which affect that army’s fate.
Israeli national politics are for the citizens who live in Israel. Arab and Jewish citizens, or any other Israeli citizen, can legally participate in free and fair elections. But even Israelis living abroad – or those who just happen to be there on vacation – don’t have a vote on Election Day unless they can vote in person at the polling booth.
Israel may be the homeland of every Jew in the world, but it’s also a functioning state day-to-day, and not with the best record of functioning smoothly. More Jewish opinions is not what Israel needs, unless they can vote in Israeli elections. Although Jews in the Diaspora feel the effects of Israel’s decision-making, they’re not nearly as strong as the effects for Jews in Israel. Only Israeli citizens should have a vote on daily life in Israel, which everyone reasonable should easily understand.
But why waste more space talking about how things should be?
RELIGION IN ISRAEL
If you’ve never lived in Israel for any significant length of time, it’s hard to fully grasp the role that religion plays in the state. Especially for American Jews, where “separation of church and state” is the cornerstone of America’s existence.
The phrase doesn’t exist in the US Constitution or Bill of Rights. The concept is so ingrained in American consciousness, this founding ideal is what led to those documents being written in the first place. It’s how America has remained one of the democratic world’s most religious nations without needing to coerce a soul into being religious.
In Israel, it’s the opposite.
Diaspora Jewry’s experience with religious diversity barely exists in Israel. Other than a few small groups, mostly filled with immigrants diligently working to expand native Israeli minds, the bottom line of Judaism in Israel is either you’re religious or you’re not. Anything in the middle doesn’t count either way.
There are many different colors of Judaism, but in Israel there’s only black and white. There is no meaningful religious pluralism or diversity among Israeli Jews. There simply isn’t a tradition here, and the vast majority of Israelis don’t like messing around with this. They know what religion does to people on both sides when it’s mixed with the politics of the state.
Many religious and secular Israeli Jews see each other as extreme, while the Jews who are neither prefer not to get in the middle. You almost never see religious Israelis be social with anyone non-religious if they’re not in a public space, at work or at school. It’s not anything personal, both sides get along fine as individuals, but the relationship is too difficult when one side is so restricted you can’t usually meet when the other has a day off.
You also can’t eat together unless one agrees to eat like the other, so Israel’s favorite pastime usually isn’t an option. Whether it’s eating or entertainment or simply going to the beach, that’s how it is when your lifestyle is dictated by religious edicts. But most people on both sides respect one another’s freedom to choose. “Live and let live” is the cornerstone of Israel’s existence.
Except for the super-religious, who until now we weren’t talking about, since anybody reading this article isn’t anybody they would hang out with. Some of them won’t even acknowledge the existence of the Jewish State of Israel, but that’s a philosophical matter which they are entirely free to philosophize about.
What they are not free to do (not that it stops them) is curse and spit at 8-year old Orthodox Jewish girls who are not dressed orthodox enough in their eyes. The fact that her mother is a religious American Jew who immigrated to Israel, shows how poignant this story is for those fighting for Israel’s soul – especially when the super-religious are the fastest growing population in Israeli society.
Don’t get confused. Religious people, in general, are not to blame. Religion done right can be a wonderful influence on society, as long as society does religion right. This kind of behavior doesn’t happen in Brooklyn, NY, where there are just as many Jews who are just as religious. In America, religious identity is kept separate from political identity, reminding everyone who prays that the law has the final say.
In Israel, where religion is sanctioned by the state, religious identity is your political identity. Religious Jews, most of whom reflect the beautiful side of Judaism, diversify their sects by wearing different head coverings and kippot (yarmulkes), signifying varying degrees of religiosity. However, any Israeli male not wearing a kipa from morning till night is considered non-religious in most Israeli eyes, including their own.
You either pray or you don’t. No one really cares. But if you call yourself religious, everyone will assume you pray throughout the day. If you don’t pray every day, then not many Israelis will call you religious. The word simply doesn’t mean in Israel what it does in the Diaspora.
Religious Jews go to Beit Knesset (synagogue) every Shabbat, or every day, while secular Jews only go if they’re invited to a bar mitzvah. You won’t find many people who only go here and there. It tends to be all-or-nothing, which is exactly the problem.
Although one thing for sure that nobody does in Israel is buy a ticket to go there on the holiest day of the year. That one Israel got right.
TRADITIONAL ISRAELIS = REFORM JEWS
Almost 25% of Israelis call themselves “traditional” Jews. They love being Jewish, and try to light candles every Shabbat. It isn’t that hard to do in Israel since virtually every Jewish family meets for Shabbat dinner every Friday night, even the ones who are secular and complain about it.
Traditional Israelis are the ones who love fasting on Yom Kippur. Some even go to Beit Knesset. But they don’t wear a kipa unless they’re saying a prayer, or are sitting in Beit Knesset, so no one calls them religious, not even they themselves.
Instead of saying “secular”, which for some people sounds like atheist, they prefer to be called “traditional” to head off any confusion. The word masorti (traditional) in Hebrew implies something more Jewish than secularists claim to be, but it’s still something they can drive with on Saturdays to the movies.
If “traditional Israelis” grew up in the Diaspora, most people would call them “reform Jews.” But when religious Israelis call other Jews “reform” they mean it as a slur, while “conservative” Judaism sounds a bit political, and no one has the energy to explain it. That’s why Israeli police dragged a conservative rabbi out of bed at 5:30 am in Haifa, Israel – to arrest him for performing a non-Orthodox Jewish heterosexual wedding.
There’s only one noticeable difference between “traditional” and “secular” Israelis. Both groups are considered non-religious Jews by everyone, yet “traditional” Israelis love being Jewish so much they want to make sure everyone knows it, while “secular” Israelis are still Jewish enough they don’t want to chance it and call themselves atheists.
Group them together – “traditional” and “secular” Jews – for a two-thirds majority in Israel. Secularists with traditionalists make up almost 65% of the entire population of Israel. You could do a lot of things with a majority like that. And we still haven’t mentioned the 20% who aren’t Jewish.
But don’t get too excited. That grouping only works together in theory.
POLITICS IS RELIGION
What some Israeli politicians are saying is true. There is a danger of apathy and disinterest from young Diaspora Jews assimilating so far into their home culture they forget about their homeland. But this was the biggest fear of Jewish parents for the previous two thousand years, when we didn’t have a state, and look where we are now.
It’s hard to take seriously the idea of Diaspora assimilation being a threat Jews should be focusing on in 2018. The irony in suggesting it is that the Diaspora is screaming louder than ever about Israel – and it can go either way if Israel doesn’t address it properly.
The problem itself is complex, but one thing that’s clear is Diaspora Jews are not apathetic. They’re also not so different from Israeli Jews. At least no more different than a French Jew is from an American Jew or an Ethiopian Jew from an Iraqi Jew. Mix them all together in one Jewish state – you’ll see in one generation just how much we’re the same.
If the problem isn’t apathy, or the Israel-Diaspora relationship, then why are there people who think that is? Because most of the world is locked in a global political struggle with people who live in countries with separation of church and state.
In Israel, politics is religion, meaning the reverse is also true.
RELIGION IS POLITICS
No one forms their gut beliefs based on totally objective thought. Beliefs can change over time with more information, but the initial gut instinct which says “I believe this is wrong,” is the same moral judgement which anchors a political opinion.
First, we form an opinion based on emotional intuition, guided by morality instilled from our elders. Then, we gather facts to rationally support our irrational judgments with our many enlightened thoughts.
In any political society, religious groups tend to be very smart with their vote. They conform to the group’s needs by pooling all their votes to be used as one voice. This is what allows them to maximize their power like any other interest group, only they do it better. Why not? Religious or not, they have the same rights as every other group in society. If the gays can gather in pride and march for their rights, then so can religious Jews. Any kind of religious Jews.
Yet even liberal democracies have respect for religion. That’s why the religious can form interest groups like everyone else, but they’re also allowed to file them as tax-free with the government. Consider it a gift from the state to their deity.
Respect for religion is a good thing to have, especially if you’re asking for religion to respect you, too. But when only 20% of the country are religious enough to wear a kipa in their home at breakfast, that’s a lot of official public respect required from the other 80%. Especially when the days the non-religious are expected to show respect – are exactly the days when the religious aren’t there to enjoy it.
The problem in Israel is the problem runs both ways. In some cases, there isn’t enough respect for religious diversity. In others, there seems to be too much kavod (respect), like when the needs of the religious go outside their own communities.
Every community should decide for itself.
Whether it’s a 70-year fight for the right to shop on Saturday – or a brand new battle to build a bridge on Shabbat – Israel’s largest secular city, the state of Tel Aviv, constantly has to fight for its freedom to choose. If not, it will suffer for the sins of Jews who don’t vote in Tel Aviv, or even come to visit, but still find it important enough to interfere with the city’s internal political life. It’s not the only city – it’s actually every city – but it’s the best-known city where the secularists are in the right.
In Jerusalem, it’s the opposite. If you don’t want to live a religious kind of life, then what in the world are you doing in Jerusalem? The secularists get their cities. The religious get their cities. Even if it’s a mixed city, everyone gets a neighborhood.
Everyone should have their own community to do with as they like.
When you’re in another city where the people dress differently – respect that other city – or choose somewhere else. It’s not a statement about either side, it’s a reminder for both. Whatever one side does out of respect or disrespect, the other side can do just as well in return.
There’s also another problem beyond religionization. Remember the almost 65% majority we talked about before? The traditional and secular Israelis which only work together in theory? That’s because these groups don’t vote the same politically, so it’s not a majority we can work with.
Almost 25% of the country identify as traditional Jews who are firmly on the political right, while not even 10% of the rest of the country identifies with the political left. That still leaves 30% of Israelis who call themselves secular Jews. They have the potential to swing the vote in either direction, but many still vote on security, an issue only the right-wing has earned enough trust from the public to manage.
This is the problem in Israel: Politics is religion. Religion is politics. Even though 25% of traditional Jews (who in America would call themselves “reform”), know they are giving their power to the most religious among them, they don’t trust anything but a right-wing coalition to manage their security effectively. Plus, they’re proud of the fact they live in the Jewish State of Israel. Why would they give their power to anyone else who isn’t?
If the left could find a leader that didn’t look so small next to Bibi, maybe the malleable center would vote a centrist into power. But coalition politics are not presidential politics, so it’s going to require a leader who can change a lot of minds. Especially with the next generation who are more polarized than ever.
Except remember how small the left pole is?
It didn’t get bigger with the next generation.
After a childhood full of children getting bombed during the 2nd intifada (uprising), Israel’s next generation isn’t messing around. The Jewish State of Israel is becoming more Jewish every day, and that’s fine with right-wing Israelis since they’re becoming more righteous.
Religion and politics work beautifully together when they’re both working on the same side. But when push comes to shove, only one of them can have the last sword, and the demographics in Israel do not favor politics.
I really hope after so many Jews spent all this time thinking about the problems we have – changing Israeli minds about religion isn’t one of the solutions we came up with.
- American Jewry
- British Jewry
- Conservative Judaism
- European Jewry
- GA 2018
- Israel-Diaspora Ties
- Israel-US Relations
- Israeli Politics
- Jewish Assimilation
- My Judaism
- Reconstructionist Judaism
- Reform Judaism
- religious-secular divide
- Ultra-Orthodox Jews
- World Zionist Congress