Is Israel a Religious or a Secular State?

Jerusalem
Jerusalem. Daniel Zelazo/Getty Images

 

Ever since its creation, there have been debates and disagreements about the nature of the state of Israel. Formally, it's a secular democracy where Judaism is privileged; in reality, many orthodox Jews believe that Israel should be a theocratic state where Judaism is the supreme law of the land. Secular and orthodox Jews are at odds over the future of Israel and it's uncertain what will happen.

Eric Silver writes in the February, 1990 issue of Political Quarterly:

Israel’s Proclamation of Independence makes few concessions to the Almighty. The word ‘God’ does not appear, though there is a passing reference to trusting in the ‘Rock of Israel’. Israel, it decrees, will be a Jewish state, but the concept is nowhere defined. The state, it says, ‘will be based on the principles of liberty, justice and peace as conceived by the Prophets of Israel; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race, or sex; will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, education and culture; will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and will loyally uphold the principles of the United Nations Charter’.

Every student of modern Israel should reread the proclamation of May 14, 1948, at least once a year. It is a reminder of the secular vision of the founding fathers. Israel was to be a modern democratic state, an expression of Jewish nationalism rather than Jewish faith. The text reads as if the drafting committee was more familiar with the American and French revolutions than with the intricacies of Talmud. The phrase ‘as conceived by the Prophets of Israel’ is little more than rhetoric. Which of the Prophets were they talking about? Immediately after a clause proclaiming the ‘establishment of the Jewish State in Palestine’, the document promises that a constitution will be drawn up by a constituent assembly ‘not later than 1 October, 1948’. Forty-one years later, the people of Israel are still waiting, not least because of a reluctance by successive governments to define (and thus calcify) the Jewishness of the Jewish state.

Unfortunately, neither the conservative Likud nor the liberal Labour parties are able to form a government on their own — and they certainly don’t want to form one together. This means that creating a government requires that they join forces with the political parties of the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) who have adopted an unapologetically religious vision of Israel:

The Haredi parties are an anomaly. They represent the ghetto society against which Zionism rebelled a century ago, a narrow, introvert world fearful of innovation. At their most extreme they repudiate the creation of a Jewish state as an act of sacrilegious presumption. Rabbi Moshe Hirsh, a spokesman for the Netorei Karta sect in Jerusalem, explained: ‘God gave the holy land to the Jewish people on condition that they observe His commandments. When this stipulation was violated, the Jewish nation was exiled from the land. The Talmud teaches us that God charged the Jewish nation not to accelerate their redemption by force until He decides to return the Jewish nation to the land and the land to the Jewish people through His Messiah.’

Netorei Karta is consistent. It keeps out of electoral politics. It supports the Palestine Liberation Organisation on the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. But it tries through specific, often violent, campaigns-against sabbath traffic, sexy swimsuit advertisements or archaeological excavations-to imprint its brand of Judaism on the citizens of Jerusalem.

Most aren’t this extreme, obviously, but they are extreme enough to cause real problems in Israeli politics.

Menachem Friedman, professor of sociology at Bar-Ilan University and expert on the Haredi phenomenon, concluded: ‘Haredi society is based upon a rejection of modernity and modern values, and on the desire to isolate itself so as to be protected from the influence of the modern world.’

Micha Odenheimer wrote in the Jerusalem Post last year: ‘In order to understand how intensely threatening the Haredim find the prospect of mass assimilation into contemporary secular society, one must recall that they consider the last 100 years to have dealt the Jewish people two tragic blows: the Holocaust and the mass defection of once-Orthodox Jews in Eastern Europe to Socialism, secular Zionism, or just plain non-observance.’ [...]

‘The religious parties cannot take over the state,’ commented Gershon Weiler, professor of philosophy at Tel-Aviv University and author of a recent book on Jewish theocracy, ‘but what worries me is the erosion of the basic idea of our national movement, that we would build a nation determining our own laws, determining our own institutions. By putting a question mark against the legitimacy of our state institutions, they are undermining our self-confidence. We are in danger of becoming just another Jewish community. If that was all we wanted, the price in Jewish and Arab lives has been too high.’

The parallels between these ultra-Orthodox Jews and the American Christian Right are strong. Both regard modernity as a tragedy, both lament the loss of power and influence for their respective religions, both would like to transform society by taking it back several hundred (or thousand) years and instituting religious law in place of civil law, both are dismissive of the rights of religious minorities, and both would risk war with other nations in pursuit of their religious goals.

All of this is particularly problematic in Israel because the agenda and tactics of the ultra-Orthodox are very likely to lead Israel into greater tension and conflict with its neighboring nations. American support of Israel is often predicated on the argument that Israel is the only free democracy in the Middle East (ignoring Turkey, for some reason) and, therefore, deserves our support -- but the more the Haredim have their way, the less Israel is a free democracy. Will that lead to a decrease in American support?

I doubt that the Haredim care because they believe that God is on their side, so who needs America? Unfortunately, when you sincerely and fervently believe that God is on your side, there is little reason for you to hold back in your reach and tactics. God will save you and God will help you, so it would indicate a lack of proper faith to not reach for the greatest possible goals. Such over-extension is bound to lead to tragedy, but ironically these people are likely to believe that a failure to extend so far will lead to tragedy because God will withdraw help from those who don’t have enough faith.

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