Do Most Israelis Really Want Separation of Religion and State?

Israelis like to think they live in a progressive country. But they know their lives are governed with religion, and they don’t really mind.

Gideon Levy
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Couples from Russia and Israel are seen after they exchanged marriage vows in a mass civil wedding ceremony in the coastal resort of Larnaca, Cyprus, June 20, 2014.Credit: AP
Gideon Levy

Do Israelis want to live in a religious society, in a state under religious law? Is the majority secular and liberal, as they see themselves? Is their country secular, as they like to think? Democratic? Is there even such a thing as a Jewish state with a secular character? The confused society called Israel has lost its way, lives in repression, and is being governed in denial. But it is still capable, from time to time, of reaching new heights of internal contradictions that are very hard, if not impossible, to reconcile. Often they can be found in the same person.

This is how it is for a society with no clue where it is heading, a society that still doesn’t know what it wants to become. Does it want to be Jewish or democratic? Western or Middle Eastern? And, of course, secular or religious? That’s what happens to a society that spends so little time (if any, at all) grappling with these fundamental subjects. Sometimes it seems Israelis just want to have their cake and eat it too. Israeli society wants to walk alone and feel good about itself (which is to say “without” itself). How else can one understand the results of the following survey?

On the face of it, the results are clear and unambiguous. Israelis want separation of religion and state, which is the basis of any secular, democratic political order. Note how strong and clear their voice is: 61 percent of Israeli Jews support civil marriage, while only 31 percent oppose it; 58 percent want public transport on Shabbat, 36 percent do not; almost half (49 percent) are in favor of single-sex marriage, only 37 percent are against it, and a relatively high percentage (15 percent) decline to answer. Arab citizens, whose influence on Israeli society is marginal, are more conservative and more religious. Most do not support civil marriage (64 percent), and certainly reject same-sex marriage (83 percent). Shabbat transportation, unsurprisingly, wins 82 percent approval.

So how does one explain these entirely predictable results: a clear and continuous public desire for a country that strives for complete democracy. This desire, however, the will of the people, its vox populi, is not only unfulfilled today, it has never been fulfilled here, not under rightist governments, not under left-of-center ones, not under secular coalitions, and not under coalitions that include religious parties. Not a single government has ever advanced the cause of secularism and the separation of religion and state. No real step has ever been taken in that direction; no politician with a chance of winning an election has ever made a serious promise to bring it to fruition. The voice of the people has been choked off. On the face of it, this analysis should lead to a clear conclusion: forget about democracy if the will of the majority has never managed to get off the ground.

But is this really the will of the people? This doubt is troubling. I want to propose a different thesis, even if it is a hard one to prove. Most Israelis like to think that they live in a secular state, that they themselves are enlightened and progressive without equal, that there is such a thing as Jewish-democratic or Jewish-secular – but in fact they are pretty comfortable in the pretty religious reality they live in. Not all, of course, but the majority. After all, what kind of society is it - in which most front doors are decorated with a mezuzah, most male newborns are circumcised, a high proportion of its citizens fast on Yom Kippur (when the roads are virtually empty), almost every family celebrates bar mitzvahs (including reading from the Torah), and most burials are religious ceremonies (even though secular alternatives now exist) – if not a distinctly religious society. And there is no religious state like it in the West, this State of Israel (except for the United States, which engraves its banknotes “In God We Trust”).

We can assume that a large percentage of Israelis, perhaps the majority, would not like to admit that they live in a dark, religious state, in which rabbis accompany citizens from cradle to grave, but in fact that is their will. The reasons for this religious conservatism are varied: feelings of guilt in the name of past generations; the desire to preserve religious, cultural and national traditions; the absence of a well-formed secular character and identity; and the idea, perhaps correct, that “Jewish” is a religious definition.

Members of the social pressure group Israel Hofshit campaigning in February for Shabbat buses.Credit: Alon Ron

That’s the way it goes. In surveys and elsewhere Israelis say they want buses to run on Shabbat and civil marriage in City Hall, but they do nothing to fulfill their ambitions. Perhaps they don’t really want it? Perhaps they don’t want it badly enough? Perhaps there is something else that stands in the way of “wanting,” particularly if the wanting is vague and ambivalent. Civil society in Israel is far from being developed, and the same is true of social protest. But that is a doubtful explanation of why no political party espousing these goals has ever won an election. Even Yair Lapid [leader of the secularist Yesh Atid party] is now photographed wearing a kippa, or skullcap, and a tallit.

But let’s not lay it all at the door of the ultra-Orthodox parties. They did their best – and somebody was humbled before them. The responsibility is on his shoulders, not theirs. It’s because of secular Israelis – because they are the majority – that there are no buses on Shabbat, or civil and same-sex marriages (which everyone says they want). It is not for the ultra-Orthodox to change things and sacrifice their beliefs, but for secular society. From David Ben-Gurion to Benjamin Netanyahu, no one has really tried. Sure, why not? Civil marriage – great. Trains that run on Shabbat – necessary. But not in our schools. Or at least not now. Or not ever.

That is what it is like in a society where everyone can be for social justice and the occupation at the same time; for LGBT rights and the death penalty for terrorists; for feminism and administrative detention. This is what it is like in a society where people can protest discrimination against Jews of Middle Eastern descent and encourage hatred of Arabs, where they can embrace the two-state solution but reject evacuating settlements. That is what it is like in a country where hypocrisy and double standard are the guiding principles, the foundation stones, of its very essence.

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