Religion and State: Is Israel Different than any Other Country on this Matter?

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Yair Sheleg investigates whether the separation of religion and state manifests itself differently in Israel than it does in other countries.

Every country in the world, including the Western nations, is grappling on some level with the tension between religion and state. Presumably, one would have expected the Western states to be exempt from this quandary, given that a basic component of the West's identity and self-definition is the democratic regime, which stipulates that the decisions made by the majority of voters (or their parliamentary representatives) are the ultimate determining factor, and not religious fiats. Moreover, Western identity does not content itself with the formal definition of a democratic regime but bases itself on a value-centered, humanist/liberal definition as well, which asserts that majority decisions too must pass the test of basic human rights if they are to be accepted. Stated otherwise, those religious dictates that impinge on basic human rights should be rendered invalid, even if the majority of the public (or its representatives) supports them.

But it seems that even the cornerstones of Western identity cannot outweigh the primordial elements of human identity, one of which is the tension between religion and state. It is the tension of social rationale and human ethics weighed against the need for an ancient tradition and the fear of the unknown in our unstable world as well as the desire for an anchor in a state of uncertainty. For what does faith in the democratic principle reflect if not belief in a rational social order that guards society against chaos (the underlying assumption is not that the right decisions will necessarily be made as part of the democratic process but that the latter is the only way to prevent constant clashes between those who hold different opinions). And what does the humanist-liberal worldview reflect? Faith in a basic system of ethics and in the human need to avoid harming the fundamental rights of others. These are worthy values; hence they carry a great deal of weight in the tension between religion and state. But the other side of the coin, namely religion, also reflects values of great importance: the need of mortal man to feel that he is part of a lengthy chain of ancient traditions, and the need on the part of man—constantly faced with an unstable world in which the uncertain surpasses the certain —for a sense of security that says to him: If you will only do such and such, you will be assured of a favorable destiny, if not in this world, at least in the world to come. This security, this anchor, is supplied by religion.

Thus, both sides of the coin reflect basic needs of the human soul, and for this reason the tension between them is present also in Western society, where the foundations of its identity would ostensibly place the state and its democratic form of government above religion. Even in Western societies of long standing, there are enough individuals for whom religious faith and the anchor it provides are sufficiently important that they attempt to question the values of the liberal-democratic state, at least in certain areas. And the proof is that in the United States, too, which placed the separation of church and state at the core of its identity and its Constitution, the sheer increase in the number of appeals to the courts on religious issues (abortion; the public status of the Bible, in particular the Ten Commandments; the study of evolution as opposed to creationism) indicates an ongoing attempt to blur this clear separation. The courts may reject the vast majority of these appeals in the name of the Constitution, but in the event that the dissatisfied representatives of the religious wing are sufficiently determined or zealous enough in their religious beliefs, they will find a way to bypass the verdicts, for example, by killing the doctors who perform abortions. France as well, which instituted a strict separation between church and state over 100 years ago, has lately been confronted with attempts to undermine this stance via the debate over the introduction of religious symbols (veils, Stars of David) into the public school system.

If this is the state of affairs throughout the Western world, in Israel all the more so. Since its founding, Israel seems to have experienced a more acute level of tension between religion and state than any other Western nation. There are several reasons for this, all of them interrelated:

First, the fact that in Israel there is no constitution of any kind that separates between religion and state, as is customary in many Western countries. But the absence of a constitution itself stems primarily from the dominance of religious and traditional circles that are opposed to such a separation. The reason: For 2,300 years, from the dawn of the Second Temple period (late sixth century B.C.E.) to the modern Enlightenment period (late eighteenth century), a congruence emerged between Jewish national identity as such and Jewish religious identity. In other words, only those who observed the Jewish religious commandments could be considered members of the Jewish people. It is important to stress that such a correspondence did not exist in the time of the First Temple. As the Bible itself attests, a majority of the kings of that period were idol worshipers, and this apparently held true for most of their subjects as well. This did not prevent them, however, from being thought of as members and kings of the people of Israel. Even the Talmud praises Ahab from a national perspective as someone who built many cities in Israel, although he was among the greatest promoters of idol worship.

In the past 200 years as well, we are witness once again to at least a partial separation between Jewish national and religious identity: Individuals who have abandoned Jewish religious observance, even total atheists, see themselves—and are perceived by others—as Jews. But a congruence that lasted 2,300 years still wields some influence, since it gave rise to large numbers of Jews (Orthodox, traditional, and even some secular) who are convinced that the Jewish state has no right to exist if it does not reflect Jewish religious identity, in other words, that it is incumbent upon Israel to embody religious identity, and certainly not to hamper it.

What is more, the bulk of the Western states were born amid the revolution of the Renaissance, which established the primacy of man and of humanism (and later of the state as well, as a form of rule whose purpose is to serve man and his values) over religion. At the very least, the humanist elite in these states was powerful enough to shape the mechanisms of government in the spirit of its own beliefs. In the case of the Jewish people, however, a similar process did not take place. True, a secular-humanist elite did emerge, which also espoused the precedence of man over religion. Yet despite the fact that the Orthodox today constitute a minority of the Jewish people, the Zionist movement already relied on them as partners from its inception, leaving it no room to dictate a secular canon (but instead making it necessary to reach compromises with the religious). If there was still a chance for such a doctrine to guide the state, by virtue of the predominance of secular Jews in the Ashkenazi community (those Jews who came from the Christian states), along came the massive aliyah from the Islamic lands bringing with it a huge community of traditionally minded Jews who, even if they did not always make a point of observing the mitzvot (religious commandments), never imagined severing the ties between Jewish identity and religion.

From this perspective, Israeli society, despite its formal Western identity, is more comparable to Arab and Muslim societies, in which there is also an underlying assumption that religion and state cannot be separated, and where secular rulers who are unwilling to establish a theocracy understand that they must at least pay lip service to religion; adopt traditional behavior, at least in public; and certainly not come out against religion. In Israel, we have (thank God) not yet reached the point of a broad-based threat of violence against the democratic form of government, as is happening in Islamic countries. But we have already gone at least as far as localized threats of this kind (most notably the murder of Yitzhak Rabin) as well as threats to strike a blow against the institution that, more than anything, reflects liberal humanist values: the Supreme Court—not by violent means but, surprisingly enough, in the name of democracy (that is, in the name of the majority of Israeli society, which according to these circles—and they may be right—means the traditionally minded public).

Every public figure in Israel - politician, journalist, intellectual, judge, etc. - who wishes to seriously address the issue of religion and state in Israel must recognize this basic fact. Any attempt to ignore it, and to dogmatically adopt the "classic" Western model (of separation of church and state), is liable to jeopardize the state and its democratic regime no less than surrendering to the standard-bearers of religion. Paradoxically, it is precisely in order that the state may ultimately enjoy supremacy over religion, and be able to reject the demands of religion when its values cause intolerable harm to those of democracy, that the state must attempt to encompass religion, to accord it a place of honor, and to be tolerant enough to give weight to its values even in certain cases where they contradict democratic values - to an acceptable degree, of course (for example, the decision that public institutions will serve only kosher food, which impinges on the individual freedom of those who must rely on these institutions).

In practical terms, this translates into taking pains to avoid overstretching the limit in relations between religion and state. In other words, we should not attempt to impose the "classic Western" approach that grants legitimacy to religion solely in the private domain and invalidates its very right to confront liberal democratic values; instead, we should acknowledge the status of religion in the public domain as well, recognizing the need to balance between its values and demands, on the one hand, and liberal democratic values, on the other. We must examine, in each instance, which set of values is suffering the greater infringement; and in cases where religious and traditional values are liable to be damaged to a greater extent, they should be given primacy. Such an approach, for example, underlies the compromise proposal that is raised sporadically in Israel concerning the public character of the Jewish Sabbath, namely, a ban on engaging in commerce coupled with permission for culture, entertainment, and leisure venues to operate as an expression of the secular concept of a spiritual day of rest. At first glance, there is no consistent ideological logic in such a proposal: from the standpoint of those who uphold Halakhah (religious Jewish law), even the opening of cultural institutions is problematic; and from the perspective of the secular public, even the closing of stores is considered to be anti-liberal "religious coercion." But precisely because it is inconsistent, this proposal expresses the proper balance between the worldviews of the various camps and the different values that they reflect.

Why is it logical in the case of Israel to forge a balance between these opposing points of view while in other Western countries the separation between church and state (and in practice, the supremacy of the state over religion) is enforced? First, in my humble opinion, perhaps it would be advisable to create a certain balance in the other Western states as well, and to allow religious individuals to express their world also in the public domain, at least in a way that would not infringe on basic human rights. Second, in several European countries, despite the formal separation, the state flag also includes the symbol of the cross (for example, England, Switzerland, Denmark, and others); in other words, at least at the symbolic level, there is no absolute separation between church and state, and Jewish or Muslim citizens of those states are forced to identify (at least formally) with a flag that represents a religion that is not their own (in the case of the Jews at least, the symbol of the cross also evokes traumatic memories). In addition, there are countries in Europe where state law dictates the closure of most commercial enterprises on Sunday specifically, as a religious day of rest.

And most importantly: There is reason to distinguish between Israel and other Western states on this issue, since Jewish identity is indeed clearly different from the national identity of those countries. Some 2,300 years of total congruence between Jewish religious and national identity - during most of which the Jews were dispersed among different lands and languages, meaning that the religious component was the only common denominator—in fact created a symbiosis between the identities from a secular perspective as well. The proof of this is that a modern-day Frenchman can be either Jewish or Muslim, and not only Christian, but a Jew today—even a secular Jew—cannot be Christian or Muslim as well. Even the Supreme Court of Israel, basing its verdict on secular civil law, reached such a finding when it rejected the claim to Jewish identity of Daniel Rufeisen, a Jew who had converted to Christianity in the aftermath of the Holocaust—this, despite the fact that according to Halakhah, he was actually still considered a Jew.

This formal verdict only reflects a deeper cultural distinction—the central role of religion in Jewish culture and consequently in national identity. French culture is based, first and foremost, on national elements—a shared language, territory, and history. But the Jewish people, for the most part, has lacked a common language, a common territory, and as a result, a common history. The sole common denominator has been the religious commandments; thus even today, one cannot cast religion aside and say that in every situation, liberal values will carry more weight than religious ones. In the same vein, while the Jewish Sabbath originated from a religious commandment, it has become an integral part of Jewish national identity, and as such it must find a public role for itself also in a modern-secular Jewish state (and not only in the private homes of those who wish to observe it). As Ahad Ha'am (Asher Ginsberg), a secular Jewish thinker, stated, "More than the Jews kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept the Jews," that is, it enabled Jews to preserve a unique identity for thousands of years in which they lived as a minority among other peoples.

The precise path to a balance between religious and traditional values, on the one hand, and liberal humanist values, on the other, must be determined through negotiations between the representatives of the various camps. In reality, the main problem between the camps is not that there is a direct collision between polar opposites, for most religious Israeli Jews are interested in democratic humanist values, and most secular Israeli Jews wish to see the continued existence of traditional values. The problem is that every time a localized conflict erupts, both sides have a tendency to take a dogmatic stand that, on the face of it, is totally opposed to the views of the other, based on the "slippery slope" argument: If I give in this time, even if the issue is not a crucial one for me, this will strengthen the other side and will drag me into future concessions that I am not prepared to make.

For this reason, it is essential to adopt the model of a covenant, that is, a broad-based agreement that simultaneously formalizes most of the controversial issues. In this way, both sides can feel not that they have set a dangerous precedent for the future by conceding, but that they have each received something in other areas in exchange for their concessions. A covenant of this type is part and parcel of the draft constitutions proposed in recent years in Israel.