Israel’s ‘Status Quo’ On Religion Is In Chaos

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June marked 70 years since Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, sent his “status quo” letter to the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party, to remove the threat of them not supporting the establishment of the Jewish state.

In this document, the future prime minister promised that in the future Jewish state, Shabbat would be the statutory day off for Jews; that all official kitchens would observe kashrut; that marriage and divorce would be conducted according to religious law; and that the educational institutions of the various religious streams would be allowed autonomy beyond the definition of a common core curriculum.

It’s ironic that the government decided to freeze progress on the Western Wall compromise plan and approve a bill giving the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate the monopoly on conversions in June.

The importance of the status-quo letter is more symbolic than substantial. Even in the domains that it addresses, the letter only proposes very general principles, and many other contentious matters are not even mentioned. In practice, the status-quo that was created at Israel’s birth is a messy patchwork of arrangements related to matters of religion and state. Some points are more detailed, at both the countrywide and local levels. These include Shabbat as the day of rest; the right of every Jew to immigrate to Israel; the definition of who is a Jew; the jurisdiction of the rabbinical courts and the procedure they follow; and the various religious services currently provided by religious councils, including rabbinic officiants, kashrut supervision, and burial.

The “status quo” has become a part of the country’s political and public jargon, tossed around freely. Rather than expressing a delicate balance between religion and state, it has developed into a useful fiction that makes it possible for members of ruling coalitions, at the national and local levels, to live in peace, agreeing not to modify the status quo, while ignoring the fact that it is constantly changing and being eroded.

The fact is that the past 70 years have seen many substantial changes in every area covered by the original status quo. One after another, the various arrangements have been eroded and breached beyond recognition. The main factors in this attrition have been rulings by the Supreme Court. But in the last three decades, there has been increasing grassroots pressure—citizens’ decreasing willingness to obey laws that relate to their Jewishness and regulate religion in the public sphere, along with the efforts by civil society organizations to establish pluralistic alternatives to the religious services provided by the state.

The unfortunate result is that chaos now prevails in almost every area connected to relations between religion and state. Instead of a broadly shared and enforceable arrangement that expresses the current political balance and the various currents and ideas about how the state should express its Jewish identity, we are living in a jungle when it come to enforcement, court rulings, and daily life.

The recent challenges at the Kotel are but a symptom of this ever-increasing problem.

Let’s go beyond the Kotel and consider Shabbat as the day of rest. On both the national and local levels, there are laws that ban commercial activity, especially if these establishments are operated by Jews. Nevertheless, Israel today vibrates with commerce on Saturdays. Some of it exploits legal loopholes and court rulings that have chipped away at the statutory bans; but much of it is in blatant violation of the law. But the enforcement agencies prefer to turn a blind eye rather than enact a realistic arrangement that would allow the public greater freedom of action.

Everyone suffers as a result: the many employees and business owners who are compelled to work on Shabbat, observant workers, the non-observant who would like to use public transportation to go to the beach, and Shabbat itself as an Israeli cultural and religious treasure. The same can be said of the other issues: everywhere there is legal and actual chaos.

This is a lose-lose situation; for years, the country has found itself unable to escape this dead-end. The ultra-Orthodox and religious parties veto any change in the status quo and are willing to bring down governments in its defense. For the other parties, the issue simply isn’t important enough. They are willing to abandon responsibility for the Jewish character of the state and ignore the rights of the many citizens who suffer because of the situation, if they do not have to pay the political price of losing the support of the ultra-Orthodox.

The situation is tragic.

The Jewish state should be a model for the integration of its Jewish and democratic constitutional principles in the regulation of religion-state relations. But it is precisely here where anarchy prevails—and no one seems to care. This situation will change only when rank-and-file citizens do care—only when they demand that the politicians who represent them also fight for the Jewish character of the state and on behalf of a new arrangement of the relations between religion and state.

This article first appeared in the New York Jewish Week.