What makes Israel a Jewish state? As someone who moved to this country from the US, I would say that the dominance of Jewish cultural norms makes Israel’s Jewish character unequivocal. The holidays in Israel are Jewish holidays, Sunday is a workday, the day off is Shabbat, kosher food is readily available in any official setting and in most malls and shopping centers. The language is Hebrew, synagogues and mikvaot are ubiquitous, Jewish history is the default perspective in schools, there is a bagrut in Bible and in Jewish thought, etc.
More than 20 years ago, I was listening to the radio on the way to Jerusalem, and a cow mooed on the show. It kept happening and then someone on the show — in a clear set up for a joke — asked the host what was going on and he responded to her, “It’s Shabbat Parah!” The joke was the insiderest of inside baseball: Shabbat Parah is the term for the Shabbat when the law of the red heifer (parah adumah) is read. It goes without saying that this joke will never be told on New York’s Z100 or Atlanta’s Power96.
A few years before this, in the mid-1990s, I was newly married and living in Tel Aviv. I saw an advertisement on the movie station we had that began with a man singing Chag Purim. Someone else then said to him — again a set up for the joke — that it wasn’t Purim but Rosh Hashanah. The man responded, “Rosh Hashanah! That means it is time for our Rosh Hashanah movie special! All the hits…”
I cracked up. For me this was doubly funny. I had only just moved to Israel, so the idea of Purim and Rosh Hashanah being mentioned at all on TV was strange. Moreover, I have always been religious: Rosh Hashanah is a yom tov (holiday) when I don’t watch TV, and, in any event, between hours of shul and long meals, who would have the time? But I felt a kind of pride in the fact that Rosh Hashanah was a set part of the year’s rhythm, even for those Jews who are not religious; such was not necessarily the case with secular Jews outside Israel.
In the US, the standard holidays are Halloween, Thanksgiving, New Years, and July 4th, and the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter are so dominant that they are virtually impossible to ignore, even for those of us who try. At the same time, other than Hanukkah and maybe Passover, Jewish holidays are unknown in broader culture. When my wife and I, back in New York for a while, were checking out a hospital for a birth, and we said something about Purim, I heard a woman next to me whisper to her husband, “What is Purim?” and he responded, “Jewish Halloween.”
Our culture is not America’s culture, and religious Jews constantly debate things like whether it is better to say “Happy holidays” or “Merry Christmas” to your neighbors and whether it is okay to eat hechshered chocolate eggs (with rabbinic kashrut supervision) on Easter. Those of us who felt connected to Judaism’s practices did so despite the dominant culture in which we lived. For me, therefore, the cultural Jewishness of Israel has been a great relief.
Idit Silman’s recent announcement that she is leaving the coalition reminds me that there is another perspective on what it means for Israel to be a Jewish state. Over the past month, Silman has crossed swords with the secular left branch of the coalition over two issues. The first is whether to move forward with the Kotel Compromise, which would fix up a space near the remains of the Western Wall, where Jews who pray in egalitarian style would have an experience comparable to those who pray at the Western Wall, with its Orthodox style, gender-segregated prayer space. Silman feels that going forward with this plan disrespects the holy spot, and that non-Orthodox movements are irrelevant here in Israel.
The second clash was over Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz’s reminder that secular Jews in hospitals should be allowed to consume hametz (leaven) on Passover in the hospitals where they are staying (they are allowed, by law). The hospital food would be hametz free, regardless, but religious patients might be subjected to seeing a roommate eat a sandwich brought by relatives from home. This was too much for Silman, and she quit, essentially bringing the government to a halt, since the split is now 50-50.
Apparently, Silman’s concept of a Jewish state features a light form of religious coercion. She is not advocating making hametz illegal on Pesach, but the government must enforce Pesach rules in its corridors, and religious patients should not be subjected to the trauma of seeing bread on Pesach.
Why is this important enough to her to freeze the government? There is no way for me to know really, but I conjecture that this comes from a fear borne of insularity. For some Israeli dati’im (religious folk), being presented with Jews eating hametz in front of their faces on Pesach calls their own Judaism into question. Unlike those who live as part of a minority culture, they have not experienced the need to affirm their commitment despite the prevailing mores. I suspect that deep down lies a fear that, given the opportunity, many of their adherents would simply drop religious practice altogether.
Religious coercion, however, is morally problematic; why shouldn’t a hospitalized person be able to eat a sandwich just because religious Jews object? Certainly, religious patients and staff should have easy access to kosher Pesach food, and the hospital’s kitchen should be kashered for Pesach, etc., but why should the secular Jew who does not keep this rule at home have to keep it in the hospital just because it may hurt a roommate’s religious sensibilities? Don’t secular Jews have their own sensibilities?
Finally, those who advocate this kind of soft coercion do not understand its negative effects. The best sell for Judaism is seeing the satisfaction observant Jews receive from their practices. Coercion accomplishes the opposite; it makes the coerced resent these practices. Moreover, it implies that the religious are not really content with their observance and are jealous of the secular, for why would they be so overcome by seeing their roommate eat a subway sandwich on Pesach if they weren’t dying to have a bite themselves?
In short, even soft religious coercion is an ethical and tactical mistake. In the long run, far from strengthening Israel’s Jewish character, moves like that of Silman’s endanger it.