Religion and Secularism in Israel: Unholy Conflict in the Holy Land
The majority of Israelis are secular Jews, but the religious Jews in the country wield enormous influence. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, designed it that way, inadvertently blueprinting a conflict that has yet to be resolved.
Young Israeli women adore Zak Berkman. The attractive, 30year-old actor has appeared in popular TV series, sometimes as a crook, sometimes as a fighter pilot. Now teens can admire him in a new historical role. At the recently opened Herzl Museum in Jerusalem, the young star plays Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism. The operators hope that Berkman's mass appeal and a new multimedia exhibition will inspire enthusiasm about the country's founding father among the young.
A journalist, Herzl dreamed of a secular state in which religion would have no influence whatsoever. "We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples," he wrote in his visionary 1896 work, The Jewish State.
But David Ben-Gurion, who ultimately proclaimed the state of Israel 50 years later, ignored this advice. To attract devout Jews to the newly-founded country, the first premier included religious leaders alongside secular Jews in his government. Moreover, he granted rabbis a powerful role in society: a monopoly on performing marriages and divorces.
"Israel is still suffering from this birth defect, this lack of separation between state and religion," says Ari Rath, the former publisher and editor of the Jerusalem Post. Even today, secular Israelis have to be married by a rabbi, and those who don't want to have no choice but to head abroad. Many end up flying to nearby Cyprus.
The rabbis also control a sprawling inspection system that - for a fee - monitors compliance with dietary laws at kosher hotels and restaurants. Kosher food is mandatory at army and government cafeterias - despite the majority of Israelis being nonreligious.
For almost 60 years now, the secular and the religious have been at war over what defines a good Jew. Is it someone who follows God's commandments meticulously and adheres as far as conceivably possible to religious traditions? Or, alternatively, someone who serves the state of Israel, but almost never sets foot in a synagogue, and only wears the yarmulke - the skullcap mandatory for religious Jews - in exceptional circumstances? The clash of cultures over national identity is omnipresent in Israeli society, and there seems to be no consensus in sight.
"While radical secularists want to detach society from its traditional Jewish roots, radical traditionalists want to eradicate its modern, western values," says Aviezer Ravitzky, professor of Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This unresolved tension also explains Israelis' inability to agree on a constitution 58 years into the country's history.
The orthodox groups believe that in Erez Israel, Judaism's heartland, they have finally found the true place to live in accordance with God's commandments.
In contrast, western, more individualistically minded Israelis feel severely constrained by religious strictures. They see freedom as one of the Jewish state's key achievements. They aspire to the kind of lifestyle people enjoy in industrial countries; for instance, being allowed to drive cars, eat in restaurants or go to the movies on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.
In fact, this is quite possible at many places in Israel, even in Jerusalem. Teddy Kollek, the legendary former mayor, successfully forged a compromise for the holy city, with rights accorded to both sides. The secularists are allowed to open a few cafés in their quarter on the Sabbath, while the religious can close specific streets to traffic in their part of the city. Even the ultra-orthodox mayor, Uri Lupolianski from the Torah Party, has been powerless to intervene. Nonetheless many secular families have opted to leave for the more cosmopolitan Tel Aviv or other places where religious Jews are scarce.
Many Israelis are livid about the repeated exceptions made for the religious contingent. Young ultra-orthodox Jews, for example, are exempted from military service if they devote their energies entirely to Talmudic studies. They have their own state-funded educational system. Only recently has the government begun an uphill battle to introduce subjects like English, mathematics, history, and even Hebrew - the national language - into these schools. Unlike other Israelis, most ultra-orthodox Jews only use Hebrew in explicitly religious contexts. To ensure that Hebrew is not treated disrespectfully, they speak Yiddish most of the time, a language that originally evolved among middle- and eastern-European Jews.
In deference to religious Jews, no public bus services run in Israel on the traditional day of rest, except in Arab areas; aircraft operated by El Al, the state airline, remain grounded. Because Jews are not allowed to eat anything leavened or fermented at Passover, in memory of the exodus from Egypt, foods containing grain - even beer or muesli - have to be cleared from the supermarket shelves every spring. Instead of white and brown bread, they sell matzo - an unleavened cracker.
The radical secular Shinui Party spent years campaigning against these religious dictates. In vain. In the last election, the party did not win a single seat.
Since the state of Israel was proclaimed, the large, secular parties - the social-democratic Labor Party and the national-conservative bloc - have dominated national politics. The religious groups have their own parties that often follow their rabbis' edicts rather than the principles of democracy. Together they comprise a good fifth of the parliament. In deference to the religious bloc, the plants in the flower beds outside the Knesset are even moved to special containers every seven years; according to the Torah, the Holy Land's pastures may not be tilled in fallow years.
Increasingly, the religious parties are featuring as coalition partners in secular governments, often finding themselves in a position to tip the legislative balance one way or another. In return, they happily accept additional funds or special privileges for their constituents. But they have never set the national agenda or shaped Israel's foreign policy and its relations with the Palestinians. The religiously motivated settlers could only stake claims in the occupied territories because secular ruling parties favored colonization themselves.
Ben-Gurion, who was not religious himself, loved to challenge the religious delegates in Parliament with his knowledge of the Bible. He was wont to quote from Psalm 24: "Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts." After reciting this passage, he would turn to the Orthodox members of parliament and say with a smirk, "According to these criteria, you're no more religious than I or my party colleagues are!"
Like their first prime minister, the majority of secular Israelis regard religion as clearly one aspect of their culture. A large number consider themselves to be nonreligious, although they observe many traditional religious practices, such as fasting during Yom Kippur, the most important Jewish holiday, blessing bread and wine on Shabbat evening, or holding the traditional seder meal at the beginning of Passover.
"Religion is a part of the Israeli identity," says the historian and journalist Tom Segev, adding that almost everyone has some association with religion, even if it's only their son's circumcision eight days after birth.
With the birth of the state, a new and unique dimension of Jewish identity emerged, defining itself particularly through the Hebrew language, Israeli culture, strong national sentiment, and the experience of the Holocaust. The residents were drawn together by a need to establish their fledgling country and conflicts with hostile Arab neighbors.
But the dream of "Israel's founding fathers" - of forging a "new Jew" - has not come true, historian Tom Segev concludes. "Israelis have come to understand that they cannot simply consign 2,000 years of history to the past." Nor can they ignore their religious heritage, for the same reason.
Zionism too, a predominantly political and secular movement to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine, took recourse to religion. According to historian Dan Diner, "Even the early Zionists said that God promised us the Land of Israel." To this day, "the state's Zionist and biblical legitimations" remain connected. The nation defines itself through religious symbols: the flag with blue stripes evoking a prayer shawl, or the national coat of arms with the menorah, the seven-branched candelabra. "Through this association," says Diner, "the religious dimension is able to dominate the secular element time and time again."
As a result, otherwise secular politicians often invoke religious rhetoric, such as former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has been in a coma for the past months. In a speech at the United Nations last year designed to cement Israel's right to exist, he talked of his forefather Abraham and the people of Israel's wanderings in the desert on the way to the Promised Land. Israel is an "open Bible," rhapsodized Sharon, citing the holy book as evidence of his people's "eternal and unimpeachable right" to Israel.
He had already poisoned his relationship with the nationalistic religious groups by withdrawing from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Unlike ultra-orthodox Israelis, this group of deeply religious Jews, many of whom are settlers in the occupied territories, perform military service, speak Hebrew rather than Yiddish, and are otherwise integrated into society. They felt betrayed by Sharon and their country because - in their eyes - the politicians were abandoning land promised by God to the Jews. They resisted relocation efforts, sometimes ferociously, which in turn sparked resentment among liberals and the left. The dispute further fueled antagonism between the two factions, underscoring the divisions within Israeli society.
"There is no place for a secular Israel in the settlers' dream world," criticized the writer Amos Oz, a spokesperson for the peace movement. Ultimately, he complained, the settlers wanted religion to be all-pervasive. "But we nonreligious Israelis also have a dream. We want to live in an enlightened, open and just country, not in some messianic, rabbinic monarchy, and not in the whole land of Israel. We came here to be a free people in our own land."
Never before has the divide been so great between Halakhah, Jewish religious law, and everyday life in Israel, say Avi Sagi and Jedidia Stern, professors of Jewish philosophy and law. In this "bitter conflict," they see a "widening chasm" between religious and secular Zionists. Israeli society is polarizing, becoming "on the one hand increasingly secular, but on the other extreme more religious," echoes Segev. But ultimately both sides find common ground - and reconcile their differences - in the ongoing conflicts with the Palestinians and Hezbollah, the historian adds.
So who "owns" Israel? Often judges are left to decide, as in the summer of 2006, when gay groups announced plans for a parade through Jerusalem. Ultra-orthodox organizations, along with Mayor Lupolianski and strict Muslims and Catholics, were all up in arms. The case was ultimately heard by the highest court in Jerusalem, which ruled that the parade could take place. A not insignificant victory - not only for homosexuals, but for secular Israelis demanding increased civil liberties as well.
Today the unresolved issue of a national constitution is once again on the table - as, at long last, is the prospect of civil marriages. This time it is the predominantly secular Russian immigrant supporters of political hardliner Avigdor Lieberman who are upping the ante.
Israeli society needs to compromise and establish a new equilibrium, says Ravitzky. Writing a constitution is one step in this process. "But anyone believing this would enforce the separation of state and religion is wide of the mark," he warns, himself a religious Jew. "The bond between religion and state, Jewish heritage and Israeli identity, is indissoluble."
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