Decade in Review: Religion and State in Israel

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IDI Research Fellow Mr. Yair Sheleg highlights growing individualism within both the religious and secular Jewish populations in Israel and takes note of growing rifts between the two communities, in an article that was published at the end of the third millennium as part of a collaboration between IDI and Walla!, a popular Israeli website.

The main process shaping the identities of Israel's religious and secular citizens in the past decade has been the prolonged transition from a collective and ideological ethos to an individualistic ethos, with individual rights positioned at its center. On one hand, this process has had a soothing effect on the relations between the various sectors. The secular camp, especially the secular intellectual elite, has become much less interested in the issue of the exemption of military service to haredim (ultra-Orthodox), which used to be a central point of contention. The Tal Law that enables haredim to enter the job market and mainstream society with no significant military service was extended for an additional five years in 2007 with relatively little uproar. Even the fact that the law was not utilized and most haredi men chose to remain outside both the military and the working worlds, despite its leniency, also drew a minimal reaction.

Similarly, the fact that more and more secular Jews have become involved in Judaism, showing an openness to adopt elements once considered part of the 'other camp', which is partially related to the diminishment of ideology in their lives, plays a role in placating tensions. That the haredim, despite their ongoing ideological hostility toward secularism and secular Jews, are coming closer in practice to modern-secular life is no less significant: they are increasingly adopting patterns of Western leisure culture (Internet, concerts, shopping in malls), gradually entering the job market, etc.

On the other hand, this same individualism has fueled a resistance to the "religious coercion" (a term that refers to national legislation based on religious law) that was at one time considered in the collective interest, as it preserved the unity of the Jewish people. Thus, the anti-religious Shinui Party won 15 mandates (although this was only a one-time achievement due to the centrality of international affairs in Israeli life); laws banning commercial activity on the Sabbath were breached; ways to bypass religious marriage were found; and even the Orthodox monopoly on conversion has been circumvented. (ie: conversions done abroad by liberal streams of Judaism received formal recognition by the Israeli Supreme Court, and immigrants from the Former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to Jewish law received de facto recognition as Jews by society in general—based upon the belief in the power of Jewish social bonds: the term "sociological conversion" was coined by Prof. Asher Cohen). In conclusion, over the past decade de facto separation of religion and state has increased, even if no law has been changed.

The result—at decade's end—is mutual fear. Religious Jews fear actual change to the status quo, to their detriment, through Supreme Court rulings that secularize the public realm. The secular population is afraid of religious demographic trends and their impact on society at large (note the alarm surrounding Justice Minister Ne'eman's remarks on "adopting Torah law"). Each side is convinced that its fear is justified.

Two interesting litmus tests point to the mutual fear. One is Jerusalem. On one hand, even under a haredi mayor, coffee shops and nightlife establishments remained opened, cultural events on the Sabbath continued, gay pride marches were held, and a ruling permitting the sale of hametz (leavened food) during Passover was even adopted. Nevertheless, the secular public is afraid of the growing haredi demographic figures and, in recent months, rose up in arms to preserve the status quo (i.e. secular outrage at the opening of the Karta parking lot in Jerusalem, which had been closed previously with few complaints).

The second litmus test is the national-religious sector, which has always served as the intermediary between the two camps. Yet during the past decade, internal disputes have polarized this sector as significant portions have shifted toward the haredi end of the spectrum, including rabbis at hesder yeshivas (a program that combines advanced Talmudic studies with military service) who explicitly declared that halacha, or religious law, takes precedence in every clash between halacha and army orders (including orders that are highly politicized, such as evacuating settlements). On the other hand, a smaller but no less significant portion has shifted toward the secular end—launching feminist initiatives and adopting liberal lifestyle choices—and is even leading the public campaign on issues such as the status of agunas (women whose husbands refuse to grant them divorces), and generally opposing the haredim in Jerusalem.

If left unrectified, this mutual fear will probably come to a head at some point in the coming decade in the form of large-scale intra-Jewish clashes. In order to preclude this, it is imperative for the sides to recognize one another's fears. In practice, it is not currently realistic to reduce the tension by trying to solve each issue one at a time, because such point-by-point concessions would appear to each side to be dangerous precedents and the onset of  a "slippery slope" towards the weakening of their positions.

As such, it would be advisable to try to reach as broad an agreement as possible on as many issues as possible—a social treaty of sorts in which reciprocal concessions would be made simultaneously, enabling each side to accept more readily the possibility of compromise. A sector that is still prepared to make concessions of this kind should not be allowed to capitulate to hardliners who object to any and all accommodations. The willing parties must shape their own agreements and enact them in binding form, acting on the assumption that although the ideological extremes will disagree and cast aspersions, nonetheless—in their heart of hearts—many of them will be glad that someone has come along to take the chestnuts out of the fire. 

Mr. Yair Sheleg is a Research Fellow at IDI and a regular op-ed contributor the Israeli daily Haaretz.