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70th Anniversary of the Status Quo

The Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) will mark the 70th anniversary of the letter sent by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to the leaders of Agudat Israel, a commitment that is considered the starting point of the status quo in relations between religion and state in Israel. Since then, and especially in recent decades, the status quo has undergone many upheavals, and has substantially eroded.

To mark this historic event, IDI will host a special conference in Jerusalem on the status quo. This gathering will raise several important questions: Was there ever a status quo or is it an imaginary concept invented by politicians? If there was, what's causing its disintegration? Are there alternatives to the status quo?


The first session of the conference dealt with the subject of individual rights versus societal image, and was moderated by Dr. Shuki Friedman, Director of IDI's Center for Religion, Nation and State, who said: "We live in a cycle of battles: Jewish citizens of Israel versus Diaspora Jews; religious versus secular; conservative versus liberal. This ritual has existed since even before the establishment of the State of Israel, and the tragedy is that every such round of conflict has ended without a decision being made. Many of the issues are the same as they were 70 years ago and have at best led to temporary agreements. The problem is that on the religious and ultra-Orthodox side there is no willingness to reach agreements, which leads to the creation of arrangements that make existing legislation irrelevant."

Dr. Micah Goodman, Director of the Ein Prat Academy: "Zionism was liberation from both the foreign rule and the shackles of religion and the rabbis. Ironically, the same Zionism that fostered the rebellious Jew also imbued a most conservative religious establishment with political power, and this is the historic accident from which we have all been wounded, since a form of secularizing has taken root here that is allergic to Jewish culture. What the status quo has wrought is an unplanned collision between the fantasy and the liberated Jew and political constraints. The question is whether today, 70 years after the accident, when all the wounded are lying on the road, is it not time for a new compromise?"

Prof. Tamar Hermann, Director, Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute: "In Israel, there are almost no true secular people. Those who define themselves as secular are not so because of the dictates of their conscience. Rather, most secular people feel guilty about not taking part in religious practices and refer to themselves as 'secular' because they do not observe Kashrut and the Sabbath. However, this is not a complete and defined worldview. From the moment that Naftali Bennett became the education minister, a situation has emerged whereby secularists could no longer ignore the fact that there secularism is devoid of content, just as the education system is permeating with the changing political balance between religious and non-religious elements. As a result, we are witnessing the beginning of a secular civil disobedience movement."

Rabbi Noa Sattat: "Jewish challenges that could improve our Judaism and improve our thinking are limited by the status quo. For example, the value I have for respecting women flies in the face of the value that religious people have against the integration of women. The problem is that secular Israelis don't perceive the Sabbath in terms of social justice when it comes to people who don't have access to public transportation. The state's obligation is to protect all citizens and to enable them, as much as possible, to exist, for example, through selective funding of yeshiva students' studies."

Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer, Vice President of the Israel Democracy Institute, said: "The status quo is not worthy of celebration, but the concept of a status quo in the political culture expresses a lack of will and courage to deal with serious issues of religion and state. We say 'status quo' as if it can solve every problem, but we're talking about something that was born as a result of mistaken beliefs regarding who will be the majority and who will be the minority. The leadership thought that Agudath Israel would remain a small minority and vice versa. However, we must understand that the concept of 'minority' isn't limited to a head count. In this case, a hegemonic minority has succeeded in achieving power."

Prof. Yedidia Stern, Vice President of the Israel Democracy Institute: "A state without an identity, a purely liberal one, will be a state of Jews and not a Jewish state. I oppose the separation of religion and state in the public sphere since it will undermine the character of our nation-state. On the other hand, we must oppose religious coercion and allow for multiple voices to be heard. For example, with regards to the issue of conversion, which is intimate by its very nature, I am opposed to privatization, because there must be criteria for who are the Jews who will be recognized as Israeli citizens. However, we must open up the conversion process and make it easier."

The second session dealt with the question of whether there is a chance that religious and state issues can be settled by way of legislation. Yair Sheleg, Director of IDI's Religion and State Program, moderated this session.

Dr. Tomer Persico of the Shalom Hartman Institute and Tel Aviv University said: "Market forces have filled the vacuum created between the desire of the Israeli public for all kinds of things like pork or malls open on Shabbat with no one to stop them, as the Knesset's inability to codify [the will of the public] because of the ultra-Orthodox parties' refusal to compromise. But there are changes within ultra-Orthodox society that are becoming more nationalistic and, of course, modern Haredim. However, changes within the ultra-Orthodox community are making it more nationalistic, and let's not forget the modern ultra-Orthodox movement. These changes will result in a decline in the power of the ultra-Orthodox, which bodes well for a future arrangement [on religious-state issues]."

Rabbi Ariel Bareli, Head of the Mishpat L'Am Institute: "Zionism's decision to be here and not in Uganda was good for the Jewish state, and therefore the connection between religion and state cannot be severed. The public in Israel regards Orthodoxy as authentic Judaism. People are not turning to the Reform Movement. Of course, certain aspects of the status quo must be changed. For example, I pray that the city of Tel Aviv will reflect some of the Jewish values ​​in its public sphere. However, any coercion should only be in the public, not private, sphere. Unfortunately, the [current state of] polarization does not allow for the status quo to be updated. However, in my opinion,  it should be possible to amend it so that the private sphere will be free, while arrangements for the public sphere will be required."

Shahar Ilan, Calcalist Correspondent and Former Deputy Director General of Hadash: "The status quo is that when you cannot agree on something, a committee is set up. Both sides are extremists and both are guilty because some of the extremism is culturally-based. However, those who are not willing to compromise are mainly on the religious side, which claims that it cannot negotiate because of the Halakhah. The status quo began with a social covenant that is essential for a society in which secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews will live together. In this sense, it has already disintegrated because there is nothing left of social consensus today."

Dr. Ruth Calderon, Faculty Member, Mandel School for Educational Leadership: "From serving in the Knesset I learned that it is impossible to legislate a law that the public does not want. On many occasions, the Talmud made adjustments and our gift as the People of the Book is to find a way to develop a new arrangement that nonetheless respects the past. You cannot force a person to undergo a religious experience."

The third session, which dealt with the issue of developing an appropriate arrangement for religious services, was moderated by journalist and IDI researcher Yair Ettinger.

MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu): "Today, the public is no longer content to just say which religious services it doesn't want, but is also speaking out about which services it does want. For example, what kind of Kashrut products does he want to purchase? There exists here a state within a state. The Rabbinical Court is effectively part of the judicial, executive and legislative branches, since it first decides, according to its Halachic interpretation, rules and then executes. This is exactly how every religious council approves its rules related to Kashrut. But today people are voting with their feet. For example, on the issue of marriage and divorce, we have reached a point where more and more people simply do not marry through the rabbinate."

Ariel Finkelstein, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, said: "Most of the discussion today is simply procedural, whether lawyers are allowed to intervene or whether Rabbi Leibowitz is allowed to be a Kashrut supervisor. No one is having a discussion on the quality of religious services. The religious councils are local entities that are largely funded by the local authorities, even though ultimate control is with the Ministry of Religious Services. As a result, there is little faith in either this ministry or its services."

Oded Plus, Director General, Ministry of Religious Services, commented on Finkelstein's remarks: "The Ministry of Religious Services, via the religious councils, received in 2015 and again in 2016 the Quality of Service Certificate. Last week, the Ombudsman's  Report was published and the Ministry of Religious Services appeared at the bottom of the list in terms of complaints. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, 96% of couples in Israel are married couples. The problem is that some people, who may have good intentions, have an agenda against religious services in the country."

Rabbi Moshe Dagan, Director General, Chief Rabbinate of Israel: "As long as there is a Halakhic problem with one of the spouses, there can be no compromise on any Halakhic aspects, and it is thus impossible to marry them, except outside the state institutions - for which solutions have been developed. On the other hand, we are doing a lot to make things easier, for example, by reforming the Kashrut system and establishing registration areas. The need for services has grown and we have responded. I do not know of any couples who did not get married because of bad service. If there is a problem regarding recognition of one's Jewishness, this is a Halachic problem and has nothing to do with quality of service. The Torah is eternal and with it we move forward. While are not opposed to anyone who wants to make a change, we are not willing to surrender our Jewish values. Ironically, in places where religious services are under the auspices of local authorities, political pressures have resulted in low quality religious services."





The conference program is as follows:

4:30 - Arrival

5:00 -    Opening Lecture: "Status Quo: Rise and Fall," Dr. Shuki Friedman - Director, Center for Religion, Nation and State, Israel Democracy Institute

5:20 - Session 1: Individual Rights versus Societal Image

Moderator: Dr. Shuki Friedman


Dr. Micah Goodman – Director, Ein Prat Academy

Prof. Tamar Hermann - Director, Guttmann Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research,

Israel Democracy Institute

Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer – Vice President, Israel Democracy Institute

Prof. Yedidia Stern – Vice President, Israel Democracy Institute

6:20 - Break

6:30 - Session 2: Is There Hope for an Arrangement?

Moderator: Yair Sheleg - Director, Religion and State Program, Israel Democracy Institute


Shahar Ilan - Calcalist

MK Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan - Deputy Minister of Defense

Rabbi Ariel Bareli - Head of the Mishpat L'Am Institute

Dr. Tomer Persico - Research Fellow, Shalom Hartman Institute

and lecturer in the Department for Comparative Religion at Tel-Aviv University

Dr. Ruth Calderon - Faculty Member, Mandel School for Educational Leadership

7:30 - Session 3: An Arrangement for Religious Services

Moderator: Yair Ettinger - Researcher, Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program, Israel Democracy Institute


Rabbi Moshe Dagan - Director General, Chief Rabbinate of Israel

MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu)

Ariel Finkelstein, Israel Democracy Institute

Oded Plus - Director General, Ministry of Religious Services


For confirmation of participation and additional details:

Ayelet Benny: ayelet@idi.org.il or by phone: 02-5300819.

MEDIA: Please RSVP to Maayan Hoffman: jaffemaayan@idi.org.il or by phone: 050-718-9742.