Why Israel Must Become a Secular State: A Thought for Yom Kippur 5770

The demand for secularization should be supported by all religious Israelis, because it is no less in their interest than it is in that of secular Jews.

Sometimes it seems to me that the State of Israel is condemned to re-enact much of European history. One of processes that Israel has not completed is secularization; and we are forced to go through this process that took Europe centuries, in a few decades. I will argue that full secularization of the state is in the interest of religious Jews no less than it is desired by non-believers, and I call upon religious Jews to join the process of secularization.

Israel's history, like that of Europe, has been determined in many ways by the tension between two conceptions of authority, revealed truth and critical inquiry. The conception of revealed truth has dominated most of human history: truth and values are based on a source that lies in the past, and whose validity is absolute. This is the basic structure of traditional religions that derive their authority from a presumed revelation in a mythical past.

The conception of critical inquiry has emerged in a series of enlightenment movements starting in India in the 6th century BCE and ancient Greece in the 5th century BCE, and gained historical prominence in Europe from the 17th century onwards. It denies that there are authorities that must be followed blindly. Instead it puts its trust in the combined effort of human beings to gradually inch closer to truth and justice.

It has taken Europe many centuries to move from revealed truth to critical inquiry as its guiding principle. The process of Europe's secularization began in 1648, after thirty years of religious wars that had left large parts of Europe virtually depopulated by killing, illness and famine. Europe realized that as long as politics and religion were intertwined, lethal conflicts could not be resolved.

This is built into the idea of revealed truth. Christians and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants fought bitter religious wars. Religious belief, by its nature, is non-negotiable. It is not up to humans to accept or reject such belief, and criticizing what has been handed down by tradition is, in most religions, considered a major sin. If two or more belief systems clash on a major issue (like who owns the Temple Mount), war is logically inevitable.

This is why Europe embarked on the long, slow process of secularization. It realized that politics must become pragmatic, and that religion must be expelled from it. The Founding Fathers who framed the constitution of the United States took full advantage of Europe's painful learning process and created the first and most important instance of a clearly secular political order, and the French soon followed suit.

The advantages of secularism emerged quickly. Its first, dramatic result was the scientific revolution beginning in the 17th century. Only once the flow of ideas was no longer controlled and disrupted by religious authority, could science - which is based on critical, collective inquiry and the free exchange of ideas - flourish.

The mirror image is presented by the Islamic world. Bernard Lewis has made a strong case that the difficulty of Islamic countries to modernize is caused by the interference of Islam in all facets of life. The result is a closed mental universe. All Arab states combined translated fewer books a year than Greece. This is in sad contrast to the flourishing of Arab cultures during the period of Islamic enlightenment from the 9th to the 11th centuries, in which Islam was at the forefront of scientific, philosophic and cultural innovation.

It is of enormous importance to realize that secularization has nothing to do with an anti-religious attitude. The U.S. constitution does not allow any religious symbol in any building connected to the legislature, executive or judiciary. And yet the U.S. is by far the most religious Western democracy in which many religious communities co-exist with very little conflict.

Israel was originally conceived of as a secular state. It is instructive to think that the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was founded more than twenty years before the state itself. The idea of free, critical inquiry as a core value was announced both by the University and by Israel's declaration of independence.

But Ben-Gurion's historical compromise with the Orthodox parties has turned out to be a catastrophe. Israel, to this day, doesn't have a constitution; the Rabbinate is involved in the lives of countless people who don't want anything to do with it, and the Orthodox stream in Judaism (which is a minority in Jewry worldwide) has a monopoly that aggravates and alienates millions of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.

Nowhere else are Jews trying to impose their religious creeds on each other; nowhere else has the conflict between religion and freethinking remained as bitter as in Israel. The involvement of religion in Israeli politics has led to a polarization that is not to be found anywhere else in world Jewry. Far from leading to Kiddush Hashem, the involvement of religion in politics has led to a culture war that is completely unnecessary.

The demand for secularization should be supported by all religious Israelis, because it is no less in their interest than it is in that of secular Jews. This is why religious leaders should be at the forefront of the movement to turn Israel into a secular state.

Previous blog entries by Carlo Strenger:

  • Why Israel's left has disappeared

  • One-state solution is a blueprint for a nightmare

  • A pragmatic vision for Israel's Left: A reply to Benny Morris

  • The future belongs to Jewish liberal universalism, Rosh Hashanah 5770