Shlomo Fischer
Shlomo Fischer

Why is it so hard to order religion and state relations in Israel?

The place of religion in Israel is a perennial question in the country’s public discussion. Every few years a new crisis develops that threatens the ruling coalition. A committee of intellectuals and public figures is formed and makes worthwhile recommendations. But of course, the recommendations are left in the drawer never to be implemented. Why does this happen? The simple answer is because of the political power of the Haredim. However, religion-state relations in Israel were problematic before the Haredim acquired significant political power. Without any connection to the Haredim, Israel never succeeded in crystallizing a comprehensive and formal ordering of this issue, agreed to and accepted by the majority of the population, such that it could be laid to rest. I suggest that deep structural sociological factors in Israel make such ordering difficult and prevent the application of conventional solutions such as the separation of church and state or confining religion to the private sphere.

First, the Jewish religion is integral to Israeli national identity. Joining the Jewish people, including in its national aspects, entails a process – Giyyur – which includes religious conversion. The relationship between religion and national identity also exists in negative terms. You cannot be considered a Jew if you are affiliated with another religion. From the perspective of the relationship of national identity and religion, Israel resembles many other countries, including European ones. For example, in Scandinavia, religious identity (Lutheran) informs national identity (as a Finnish scholar once said in a lecture I attended: “To be Finnish is to be Lutheran”). In England too, the Anglican religion is entwined with national identity.

The presence of a religious component in the collective identity of the State of Israel resulted in the founding of a state religious agency – the Chief Rabbinate – to represent and express this component. The population also expects the state to supply religious needs as it supplies other needs – energy, hygiene, etc. Thus, the Chief Rabbinate, like other state churches, has a double task, it is both symbolic and practical. Indeed, most of the public (86%) supports the continued existence of the Chief Rabbinate, albeit with reforms. A clear majority also supports the Jewish character of the public sphere. 

Second, Judaism and Islam are communal ethical-ritual religions of practice. Unlike Protestantism, they do not rest upon inner faith. Rather, believers must actively fulfill commandments. Furthermore, the community plays a central role in this practice. Judaism and Islam are collectively and communally oriented, not only individualistic. 

The separation of religion and state and the confinement of religion to the private sphere is easier when religion itself is primarily concerned with the private sphere and the inner world of thought, faith, and conscience. In contrast, it is difficult, if not impossible, to consign Judaism and Islam to the private sphere. The community and the public sphere are arenas of religious practice and they are of religious relevance. For the United States, as a primarily Protestant country, it is relatively easy to privatize religion. For Israel, it is a lot harder.

Third, under these conditions, there are states such as India and Turkey in which secularization takes place in terms of the control of religion by the state or nation (not as separation of religion and state or the privatization of religion). Israel, too, has initiated moves in this direction. However, this solution in Israel is complicated, because for significant populations the Israeli nation-state is itself sacralized and perceived as arenas for religious fulfillment. About half or more of the population, for example, views the settlement and incorporation of the Greater Land of Israel (including the West Bank and the Golan Heights) as the fulfillment of a Jewish religious value. Another example involves conservative factors that wish to leave the sole authority over conversion (Giyyur) with the Chief Rabbinate. They justify this with the “National-Statist” claim that since the Jewish People has a state that represents the entire Jewish People, it would be inappropriate to leave the entrance procedure into the Jewish People to local, private, or partisan factors as it was during the Exile. Conversion has to be under the exclusive control of a central state authority that formally represents the entire public (and hence enjoys elevated, even sacred status) – that is, the Chief Rabbinate. 

Fourth, one has to take into consideration the pattern of secularization that characterizes Israel. Researchers have identified two basic patterns: a “Catholic” pattern in which secular forces organize themselves in opposition to religion, and a “Protestant” pattern in which secularization takes place within religion itself through increased pluralism and the growth of different approaches and denominations. In France, Italy, Spain, and Russia, movements developed that were not only secular in outlook but actually anti-religious. In Protestant countries, especially the United States, trends such as the individual reading of scripture and the growth of individual conscience developed. As a result, religious pluralism and toleration grew there, which were considered religious as well as civic virtues (e.g. Roger Williams). 

The historical roots of the Israeli pattern are in Eastern Europe, in which the “Catholic” pattern was practiced in an extreme way. (In the Russian Revolution the Communists burned and gutted churches). The Yishuv absorbed the premises of the environment from which it came. Moreover, traditional Judaism, as practiced in the Galut, was deemed inimical to the national project. The restrictions of the Halacha and the passivity that characterized traditional Jews in the Exile were thought to be obstacles to the creation of the new, emancipated Jewish society and state and the free, strong “new Jew.” Thus, from a historical point of view, Israel has adopted the Catholic pattern. Israel is not characterized by the religious pluralism of the Jewish community of Protestant America, with its streams and denominations. Rather Israeli secularism is characterized by various forms of opposition to traditional religion and to the religious establishment that represents it. 

The result of all this, issues concerning the relations of religion and state in Israel have an overtone of crisis to them. Raising these issues is always accompanied by the feeling of imminent conflict, that one has to somehow resolve or overcome. 

As a result of the four factors discussed above, there are no easy solutions to the question of the place of religion in the State of Israel. One cannot simply separate religion and state because the Jewish religion is part of national collective identity. Similarly, one cannot privatize religion because Judaism is a communal religion of ethical and ritual practice. Furthermore, one cannot subordinate religion to the nation-state because there are deep disagreements as to the nature of the Israeli nation-state. About half the population regards the nation-state itself as sacred, while the other half sees it as secular – pluralistic. Finally, one cannot base a resolution on religious pluralism because Israel has no historical tradition of religious pluralism – one is either for religion or against it, but in both cases, one is concerned with the same, singular Jewish Orthodox religion. 

Israel bears a unique combination of conditions that weigh upon ordering the relations of religion and state. This situation thus demands a unique Israeli solution. Israel cannot import solutions from other countries. Israel must find its own way based upon its particular characteristics. As stated above, one cannot simply separate religion and state in Israel because the Jewish religion is part of national identity. However, this state of affairs works in both directions. True, religion has a place in the state in the form of the Chief Rabbinate. However, not less than this, the state has a place within the Jewish religion. According to Halacha, the public and its representatives have considerable power. They can seize private property, whether for eminent domain, taxes, or fines, and they have other civic and monetary powers. With these powers, in principle, one can do a lot – for example, annul marriages (through expropriating retroactively the money (i.e., the ring) that affected the betrothal). Thus, the wherewithal exists for innovating a new Israeli model of religion and state relations – one based not upon the separation of religion and state but upon the mutuality of religious and state powers.

About the Author
Dr. Shlomo Fischer is a sociologist and a senior staff member of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in Jerusalem. He taught 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.
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