Samuel Heilman
Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus CUNY

The Dark Side of Religion

The latest outrage from one of the minority parties in Netanyahu’s government comes from the members of the Religious Zionism party who are poised to become far more powerful as soon as the new prime minister is sworn in. It is in the proposed change in Israeli law that is apparently a part of the agreements among the ruling parties that will be revealed shortly.

This change would seek to permit private persons to refuse a service which they provide to anyone if they claim that by doing so they have to compromise or transgress their religious beliefs – so long as there are other providers who can replace them and provide the service.

While the example given most frequently in the press has been of providers whose beliefs oppose LGBTQ behavior and therefore would deny members of the LHBTQ community their services. When asked during a radio interview about this new law and if it would enable Muslim Israelis no less than Jews to likewise refuse to provide their services, MK Orit Strock of the Religious Zionist party enthusiastically replied “Absolutely.” The law applicable to Israeli citizens would not discriminate by religion. It would only discriminate by behavior.

So, let us take her at her word and examine some situations in which this proposed law would work. Let’s say a Muslim taxi driver, a citizen of Israel, decides that because of his religious beliefs he does not want to allow a woman whose hair is uncovered or dress immodest into his cab, or he claims that he must refuse to give a ride to a Jew who has publicly expressed hatred of Arabs because to do either would force him to compromise his deeply held religious principles. Moreover, he argues that there are others who could offer these services instead of him; the passengers in question will just have to find them now. Or, let us suppose, we are talking not about a taxi driver but a Muslim doctor at a Terem clinic; they too would have to find another doctor. Suppose we are talking about a Jew and he excludes the same sort of people who seek his services? Would the proponents of this law treat both religious objectors equally? And what would happen if a Muslim waiter in a hotel decided, he could not serve guests who asked for alcohol, and suggested to a Jew who asked for wine for kiddush to ask another waiter? Would these Religious Zionists enthusiastically defend the right of these Muslims to refuse their services because of their religious beliefs since after all there are others who might supply those services in place of them?

And what about Buddhists? Suppose an Israeli citizen who was Buddhist and like all faithful members of his religion saw greed, ignorance and hatred – the three cardinal sins which Buddhists are enjoined to avoid – as intolerable and decided he would not serve customers in his shop that he felt were greedy, ignorant or expressed hatred of others. Would such a believer be in line with the new law?

Would our new lawmakers be ready to allow those who believe that women should not appear in photos, allow photographers who say taking such pictures disturbs their religious scruples to refuse to take pictures of women? And those who think women should not walk on the same sidewalk as men to demand they be restricted from passing through their neighborhoods because there are other places they could go? Would this be part of the consequences of this new law?

The question of what constitutes a breach of religious principles is of course not obvious. Religious wars have been fought over the tiniest of details. Would our state now need religious decisors – rabbis, imams and priests – to judge whose objections were genuinely in line with the religion and which not? Would we need a kind of religious council to determine what is permitted and what not? Or would the secular courts and police officers enforcing this law have to decide these matters?

If Israel is not to devolve into a Taliban type of state or a clone of Iran in which religious fundamentalists shape the law to their beliefs, it dare not insist that legislators and politicians define religion as the ultimate basis of how the society will be governed. Moreover, allowing the legislature overrule the courts – another of the purported goals of the incoming government – even as it puts religious fundamentalists and political extremists into the power not only spells the end of the Zionist enterprise but of Israel as a leader in the modern world. The place of religion is in our hearts and in our homes; its goal should be to inspire and enhance life and not to coerce and discriminate against other human beings. That is what has been inherent in the hope that a Jewish state would be a “light unto the nations.” Alas, that light is being snuffed out by the Netanyahu government.

About the Author
Until his retirement in August 2020, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY, Samuel Heilman held the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center. He is author of 15 books some of which have been translated into Spanish and Hebrew, and is the winner of three National Jewish Book Awards, as well as a number of other prestigious book prizes, and was awarded the Marshall Sklare Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, as well as four Distinguished Faculty Awards at the City University of New York.He has been a Fulbright Fellow and Senior Specialist in Australia, China, and Poland, and lectured in many universities throughout the United States and the world. He was for many years Editor of Contemporary Jewry and is a frequent columnist at Ha'Aretz and was one at the New York Jewish Week. Since his retirement, he and his family have resided in Jerusalem.
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