Israeli secularization and its discontents

This week’s blog is really a follow-up to the last blog that I posted. A number of friends and readers in more or less friendly fashion, basically said to me that the model that I proposed, that religion in Israel is like a public utility, is interesting but they would really like to hear how the Jewish religion should be organized in practice. That is, how does one organize a public utility that is humane, egalitarian and inclusive. I will hopefully address these questions in subsequent posts, but before that, I would like to extend the analysis. In the last post, I raised the fundamental question of why a large non-Orthodox Jewish majority puts up with an Orthodox monopoly on religious life – especially life cycle events, personal status, prayer and religious services and even state religious education. In that post I tried to provide an answer on the level that Israel has a European public utility model of religion. In this post I will try and address this question from a different level – that of the Israeli model of secularization. This is a question that I have addressed in previous posts and there a may be a certain degree of overlap.

Israel is not only anomalous in terms of its relations between Orthodox and non-Orthodox or secular Jews but also in terms of its pattern of secularization. The Israeli state and society think of themselves in a rough way as secular or non-observant. Central spheres of government and social life are clearly liberated from religious control, especially the law, the political sphere, the economy, the military and even the state electronic communications media. At the same time, there are serious departures from any rigorous model of secularism. Israel has a religion which is clearly privileged by the State – Orthodox Judaism. There are areas of law – notably personal status, marriage and divorce which the state has given over to the control of the clergy. Furthermore, the state supports Jewish religious education. How to explain this particular pattern, this particular interweaving of secular and non-secular elements?

I would suggest that in the case of Israel, the main spring of secularism has been the reordering of Jewish collective identity, not necessarily the realization of liberal values. In this, Israel resembles not so much Europe as a near (and problematic) neighbor, Turkey.

In the long history of the Jewish people, Jewish collective identity has constructed and reconstructed manifold times. It has also been much contested. A major construction of such identity is what we call “traditional” Judaism. This crystallized some time in the mid or latter part of the first millennium of the Common Era and lasted for about a thousand years (or perhaps a bit more), starting to crack in Central Europe in the late eighteenth century. According to this construction, the Jewish people is an ethno-national entity which would realize its true nature, inner purpose and well-being through the individual and collective observance of the Jewish religion. This “traditional” Jewish religion also placed great (though not exclusive) emphasis on the Jewish religious law or the Halacha.

In contrast to this traditional construction of Jewish collective identity, Zionism or Jewish Nationalism claims that the true nature, inner purpose and well-being of the Jewish people can only be achieved through the realization of Jewish national existence. The point of the Jewish national movement is to formulate and realize its own autonomous national goals: The creation of a viable territorial state, viable national culture, and modern political system. Underlying the Jewish national movement is an assumption about the Jewish people – that the most salient and essential  dimension of Jewish existence is the national dimension. Together with this, Jewish nationalism was a drive towards modernization, which included modern political technology alongside productivization and the acquirement of military strength.

For many decades traditional religion was deemed inimical to the national project. To accomplish its aims, the modernizing nationalist project has to be liberated  from the restrictions and tutelage of the traditional Galuti Jewish religion. As I had written in a previous blog “Traditional religious Judaism was held to be too passive, and with its social, intellectual, dietary and sexual restrictions and its ideal of an ascetic life of study and prayer, too unworldly, too anti-nature and ‘anti-life’ to be of any use in the construction of the new Zionist ideal. Traditional religious Judaism was viewed as an obstacle to the creation of the new Jew who would be self -reliant, rooted in the physical reality of national territory and primary economic production – agriculture and heavy industry, and autonomously creating a new national culture.” Hence many central elements in the Zionist movement, adopted a “Catholic” mode of anti-religion in their efforts towards secularization. Such a mode was also adopted by Kemalist Turkish nationalism which was dominant in Turkey until very recently.

Despite this, religion remains an intrinsic part of the national project. Most importantly, it plays a role in the determination and definition of national membership. This role is in the first place negative: You cannot belong to another religion and be considered a member of the Jewish nationality. This principle was not always obvious –quite the contrary – but it was ironed out over time. Theodore Herzl’s revolutionary project seems to have included a radical re-ordering of Jewish collective identity. It was to be defined entirely by territorial and state boundaries. Those who lived within the boundaries of the Jewish State were to be Jews (like Frenchmen are those who live in France) while those outside of it were to be part of the nations in which they lived (Frenchmen or Germans, not Jews). Along these lines Hans Herzl, Theodore’s son, considered one’s religion to be irrelevant to one’s national identity. Hans converted to Christianity and continued to consider himself, nationally, a Jew.

This radical Herzlian conception of Jewish identity was rejected by the Zionist movement. In the nineteen fifties when Theodore Herzl’s body was reinterred in Mt. Herzl, despite Theodore’s express wishes that his son be buried with him, the government of Israel refused to do so on the grounds of Hans’ conversion. (In 2006 the Israeli government  finally allowed Hans and other members of the Herzl family to be buried in Mt. Herzl.)The most important and famous statement of the negative importance of religion for Jewish national identity occurred in the Brother Daniel Rufhiessen case in which the Supreme Court ruled that as the term “Jew” is understood both by the legislators (who passed the Law of Return) and ordinary people, one cannot be Jewish if one converts to Christianity. This is so even if by Jewish religious law (Halacha), such a person “who sinned” remains considered a Jew. As a result of this ruling,  Ruffeisen was registered as being of “no nationality.” The Supreme Court and the government of Israel on other occasions involving population registration reinforced this conception.

Thus, religion is intrinsically involved in national identity and in the public sphere and not only in a negative way. According, to the Avichai – Israel Democracy Institute Report on “beliefs, values and observances of Israeli Jews” (published in 2011) 61% of Israeli Jews “believe that the State of Israel should ensure that public life is conducted according to Jewish religious tradition”. This connection of religion to national identity also underpins the “the public utility model” of the Jewish religion in Israel that I discussed in my last post.

So what is the nature of secularization in Israel? What Jewish national secularization seeks is not the familiar idea of the separation of church and state but rather the autonomy of the state and the related spheres of the economy and military from religious control and, on the contrary, the subordination of religion to the national principle.In this sense, Zionist-Israeli secularization resembles that of Kemalist-Turkish secularization. In Turkey, since the founding of the secular Republic of Turkey in 1922, there is not separation of religion and state. On the contrary, religion, that is, Islam, is integrated into the state and controlled by it. This is accomplished by the Directorate (or Presidency) of Religious Affairs, basically, a government ministry which trains Imams and sets doctrine in accordance with the interests of the state. A similar arrangement basically obtains in Israel. The Chief Rabbinate and the Ministry of Religious Affairs are organs of the state which are designed to subordinate the Jewish religion to the interests of Jewish nationalism.

We can now go back and look at some of the anomalies of the Israeli pattern of secularization. First, clerical control of marriage. Religious control of marriage and divorce irks but is tolerated (at least in part) because Jewish religious endogamy is considered to be in the national interest. That is, in Israel, it is considered to be a national interest that Jews do not marry non-Jews, but marry Jews. Secondly, and perhaps just as importantly, it is considered to be an important expression of national solidarity that Jews can and do marry other Jews. Ever since the classic study by the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, we know that social groups connect by exchanging women, that is, by marrying each other. (This idea was expressed vividly by Shechem and Hamor in the Biblical story of the rape of Dinah). A widespread notion in Israel (most prominently by religious Zionists and traditional Jews but also by others) is that it is important for national integration and wellbeing for the different Jewish social groups (religious and secular, left and right, Ashkenazim and Sephardim) to be able to marry each other. This is accomplished by subordinating all the groups to the Jewish religious law of marriage and divorce. In a similar vein, the state supports religious education because enhanced Jewish religious membership is considered to be enhanced Jewish national membership.

All articulations of Jewish collective identity have at least two components – the religious and the ethno-nationalist. As long as the collectivity remains Jewish, at least in a historical, recognizable way, both components in one fashion or other will persist. The real question is what is the relation between the components? This, I think is the real question dividing Haredim and Zionist (including religious Zionist) Jews. The Orthodox-Haredi conception of Jewish collective identity includes a strong and salient ethnic or ethno-nationalist conception (which is often very particularist and even xenophobic), however this component is always subordinated to the religious-Halachic component and is entirely regulated by it. The Zionist (including the religious Zionist conception), persists in maintain the religious component, however it is subordinate to, and serves the national component.

Religious Zionism is a reinterpretation of Orthodox Judaism which integrates it with, and subordinates it to, Jewish nationalism. It does this by interpreting Jewish nationalism as a supreme religious value. Various streams within religious Zionism employ different strategies to accomplish this. One stream which has been very prominent over the past four decades is the “messianic” settler stream which is associated with the school of R. Abraham I. Kook. This stream has tended to ascribe religious value to Jewish nationalism conceived in organic-collectivist terms. The Jewish people, the Land of Israel, the Torah and the process of the Return to Zion (as a redemptive process), tend to be conceived of as organic wholes which is very difficult to break up into component parts. Within this stream, Zionism is a movement in which the People of Israel establish sovereignty over the Land of Israel, which is then conducted according to the Torah of Israel. This entire process is conceived of as the redemptive Return to Zion. This stream is considered to be the religious Zionist backbone of the political right wing. Another more minor stream within religious Zionism, claims that Zionism is a religious value because it contributes to the wellbeing of Individual Jews. Some members of this stream have adopted centrist or moderate political positions.

The Haredim, of course, argue that all streams of religious Zionism are simply a falsification of true religious Judaism. True religion and halacha demand that everything, including nationalism, be subordinate to it.

The Chief Rabbinate and its attendant institutions (the rabbinical courts and the local religious councils) were set up so as to implement in practice this complex relationship of religion to nationalism – that is, that religion plays a central role in Jewish nationalism but it is nevertheless subordinate to nationalism’s interests. As time has proceeded, though and more variegated rabbinical groups vie for control, influence and power in the chief rabbinate and the rabbinical courts, this implementation has become more difficult and problematic. First, the Haredi sector has greatly increased its power and influence and rabbis close to the Haredi outlook have been Chief Rabbis in the past twenty years. Secondly, in the religious Zionist sector itself, rabbinical groups have emerged which put a very narrow, religiously conservative and ethnically based construction on Jewish national identity. This has resulted in very restrictive rulings in regard to conversion, marriage and divorce and has negatively impacted the lives of many individuals, especially new immigrants. At the same time Israeli society has itself grown vastly more variegated in recent decades both in terms of the religious and ethnic origins of its population and as a result of late modern cultural influences which emphasize individual choice not only in terms of marriage partners but also in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity.

In my next post I will discuss possible policy directions both in the light of the historical assumptions that Israel has concerning religion and its relation to nationalism and the Israeli public and state and in the light of the new developments in Israeli society at large and among the religious and rabbinical sectors.

About the Author
Dr. Shlomo Fischer is a sociologist and a senior staff member of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in Jerusalem. He teaches in the Department of Education at Hebrew University. He is also a founder of Yesodot- Center for Torah and Democracy which works to advance education for democracy in the State-Religious school sector in Israel. His research interests include religious groups, class and politics in Israel and the sociology of the Jewish People in the Diaspora.
Related Topics
Related Posts