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Reality check: Israel between religionization and secularization

A solid Jewish identity should be the bedrock of the State of Israel; instead, it's an ongoing bone of contention

All over Israel, shouts of religionization are being heard. According to a recent survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), a majority of Israelis believe that the State of Israel is becoming more religious. The current government coalition, which relies on the power of ultra-Orthodox and religious parties, makes decisions that reject religious pluralism, thus painting Judaism in Israel a darker shade of black. However, if we examine the historic relationship between religion and state and the current reality, a more complex picture emerges.

It is customary to describe relations between religion and state in Israel as maintaining a status quo, as if dramatic changes haven’t taken place over the decades. However, with this year marking the 70th anniversary of the status quo, the time has come to finally refute this myth and provide a more accurate description of religion and state in Israel.

How did it all begin?

Seventy years ago, David Ben-Gurion sent a letter to the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael movement in which he committed the nascent state of Israel to several arrangements on matters of religion and state: personal status laws as being based on Halacha (Jewish law); kashrut being maintained in public eateries; establishing Shabbat as the country’s weekly day of rest; and granting autonomy to ultra-Orthodox schools. With the establishment of the state, agreements on religious control in the areas conversion, religious services, burial and a handful of others were added to the original list. Together, these arrangements codified the status quo in relations between religion and state.

Yet, despite the supposed status quo, much has changed.

Regarding the central tenants of the agreement, including Shabbat, marriage, divorce and conversion, the primary arrangements established in the status quo have eroded.  On the one hand, the High Court of Justice, market forces and organizations working on behalf of religious pluralism have affected significant societal changes that have made Israel more open and egalitarian in these contexts. On the other hand, several phenomena in the Israeli public sphere indicate a trend toward greater conservatism. For example, the exclusion of women and the large amount of haredi men who do not serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

The story, or tragedy, here is that relations between religion and state in Israel have been in perpetual crisis mode since the establishment of modern Israel. On this, the single most important issue facing the Jewish state, one that distinguishes it from any other country and is supposed to unite Diaspora Jews, the political establishment cannot reach any agreement. Instead of a solid Jewish identity being the foundation of the state, Judaism in Israel is a bone of contention.

This is not the result of genuine religious or ideological disagreements, but of aggressive political machinations on both ends of the political spectrum. From the extreme secular side, we find groups that seek to completely separate religion and state. From the religious, ultra-Orthodox side, there are politicians and rabbis who are unwilling to give up their power over matters of religion and state.

But the real culprit in this story is the moderate secular-traditional-religious majority. During the many years in which the religious and haredi minority have vetoed any changes to the balance between religion and state, the secular majority and its political leaders have not even attempted to unite and fight back, to change this situation. Unfortunately, this issue is simply not important enough for them.

However in today’s reality, change can only come from below — from the people, in Israel and the Diaspora. Only if the political leaders of Israel’s Jewish majority come to understand that their voters are demanding that they fight for a change in the current religious and state arrangements, will they engage whole-heartedly in this battle. It will take dialogue, negotiations and potentially an outright political struggle to reach a balance between religion and state that will work for most Israeli Jews and their brothers and sisters abroad.

Dr. Shuki Friedman is the director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Religion, Nation and State.

About the Author
Dr. Shuki Friedman is director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute and a lecturer in law at the Peres Academic Center.
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