Emanuel Shahaf

Religion and state – who the hell cares ?

Recently I was given the opportunity to attend a round-table discussion held at the Israel Democracy Institute titled (IDI): “Religion and state, conspiracy of silence”,  relating to the sad reality that the issue is being ignored by all the political parties despite the fact that they are presently engaged in an intensive election campaign. Mind you, that is not even the most important political issue which is also ignored by the parties – anybody hear about the occupation lately ??

But back to our “religion and state” get together. The setting was pleasant, a round table seating sixteen, two of them women. The participants where mostly kippa wearing Ashkenazy males, two of them noticeably charedi, representing different Jewish NGOs with a direct stake and news media with an interest in the religion-state balance or rather imbalance in Israel. There was a single coincidental non-Ashkenazy journalist present. Needless to say, no member of Israel’s ethnic/religious minorities was anywhere in sight. Actually a little surprising for an institute with that name. I guess the presumption is that minorities that constitute 20% of the Israeli population presently have bigger worries than the relations between religion and state.

The general opinion was that the issue is not being discussed since in the end it doesn’t have enough potential constituents to generate the active interest of the different political parties. After all, who cares about religion and state issues in Israel ? Maybe several hundred thousand people concerned with civil rights, which, by and large is a leftist concern and therefore not popular.  Another considerably smaller if more emotionally involved constituency consists of people who are personally affected by the present dismal set-up where prospective converts, converts, women in divorce proceedings and other unlucky victims of the minutiae of Jewish personal status issues are subject to serial mistreatment and discrimination by religious authorities wielding state power. Not too many, not nearly enough, electorally speaking.

Another reason for avoiding the subject, not to be discounted in an election period, is the reluctance of political parties to take a stand on civil issues in order not to reduce their chances of being courted for coalition purposes by the religious parties when it’s time to form a government. And of course, wiggling through, which is what we have been doing for decades, has apparently been pretty adequate so far.

The two women participants offered two additional suggestions: The issue is predominantly a women’s issue (it is mostly women who are suffering from the consequences of the religion-state imbalance in Israel) and the ongoing uncertainty of the public with regard to its national identity and its security in the region contributes to people’s reluctance to relax their attitude towards their religious identity.

The only person to show a clear way ahead and propose how to proceed was the secular woman who said that the only future to improve the situation is making the balance of religion and state an issue of civil and human rights and thus maximize public support. And this is where I sorely missed minority representatives – they, more than anybody will  conceivably have a strong interest in promoting equality under the law, across the board and across religions and on March 18th the party primarily representing them is likely to constitute one of the largest opposition parties in the incoming Knesset, if not the largest one.

In an irony of sorts, it just might be Israel’s Arabs who will help us to settle the issue once and for all and separate religion and state.

Note: Participants at the event were not mentioned by name to protect the nature of the proceedings,

About the Author
The author served in the Prime Minister’s Office as a member of the intelligence community, is Vice Chairman of the Israel-Indonesia Chamber of Commerce, Vice-Chairman of the Israeli-German Society (IDG), Co-Chair of the Federation Movement (, member of the council at and author of "Identity: The Quest for Israel's Future".