New Study Reveals How Secular Israelis Have Eroded the Religious Status Quo

Seventy years ago, David Ben-Gurion laid the foundation for the relationship between religion and state in Israel - or in other words, the status quo. What's left of it?

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A demonstration organized by Haredi Jews in Jerusalem, against drafting them to the Israeli army, 2017.
A demonstration organized by Haredi Jews in Jerusalem, against drafting them to the Israeli army, 2017.Credit: Emil Salman
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

The current period looks like the glory days of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties.

The plan for an egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall is on hold. Railroad infrastructure work scheduled for Shabbat has been deferred. The proposed conversion bill limiting authority to carry out conversions in Israel to the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate has the support of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, and the last word has yet to be said on the opening of convenience stores on Shabbat in Tel Aviv. A review of media coverage in Israel leaves the impression that, when it comes to the fragile duality of Israel’s identity as both a democratic and Jewish state, the Jewish character of the country has the upper hand. But is that really the case?

After all, retail businesses remain open on Shabbat. Israelis wishing to avoid getting married through the Rabbinate are going abroad to wed or are making do with civil unions, and even conversion practice today isn’t what it once was.

An ultra-Orthodox man walks past women at a bar in Jerusalem, Israel, May 11, 2017.Credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

As Israel approaches its 70th anniversary, these issues still revolve around a letter on the religious status quo that David Ben-Gurion, who a year later became Israel’s prime minister, sent in 1947 to members of the ultra-Orthodox World Agudat Yisrael organization. From a formal standpoint, in his letter, Ben-Gurion, who was then the head of the Jewish Agency, addressed issues of Shabbat, Jewish dietary laws, education, marriage and divorce. In practice, however, he laid the foundation for the relationship between religion and state in Israel, in other words, the so-called status quo.

“This is the platform of values by which all of us live,” the current interior minister, Arye Dery, of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, told Haaretz. “There are those who have a habit of ridiculing it, but we need to remember that without an agreed-upon social-religious contract, we could descend into civil war. Very unfortunately, in recent years, there has been a trend of breaching the status quo.”

So 70 years later, does the status quo still define the constellation of forces between Israel’s Jewish and democratic character? Is the status quo alive or dead? A new study expected to be published in the coming weeks has attempted to answer these questions.

“The status quo on matters of religion and state is imaginary, but that’s also its advantage,” says the editor of the forthcoming research, Shuki Friedman, the director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute, who is also a member of the law faculty at the Peres Academic Center. “Each side can see in it what it wants, so over the years, the status quo has become a magic term that politicians and even the court have relied on to describe the relationship between religion and state,” Friedman says. “The arrangement between religion and state in Israel, which is included in the imaginary status quo, has constantly changed in every field. The service provided by the state is becoming increasingly superfluous and the arrangement establishing it is becoming emptied of content.”

Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Shlomo Amar, supervises over the kashrut inspection at the Knesset, in 2014.Credit: Itzik Harari

Secular Jews are responsible

It is the secular side, at least the study asserts, that is behind the status quo’s erosion. Perhaps the best example is the Shabbat observance issue. Although public transportation in Israel on Shabbat is very limited, there has been a major shift regarding everything related to what is open on Shabbat. There has been a certain distinction in most of the country between places of entertainment, many of which have remained open, and retail establishments, which have traditionally been closed. The study found that 98 percent of movie theaters, 65 percent of museums, and 83 percent of cultural institutions are open on Shabbat. But the study also found that 20 percent of shopping malls are open.

In recent instances in which the ultra-Orthodox population has launched major protests over Shabbat observance, it was mostly from more extreme Haredi factions, and their efforts resulted in utter failure. “In the past, there were just three restaurants open on Shabbat in Jerusalem,” says Uri Regev, the director of the Hiddush religious pluralism organization. “Today the city is full of restaurants, cafes and convenience stores among others.”

David Ben-Gurion, who was a party to the Status Quo Agreement in 1947.Credit: Daniel Rosenblum

“Today existing laws have generally not been enforced and a general custom has been created providing that markets and sectors that in the past were closed on Shabbat have made their Shabbat during the week,” the study concluded. Historically, the status quo on Shabbat was based mostly municipal ordinances and laws relating to work and rest, which provided that Saturday was the day of rest, but not as a religious value. Over the years, religious Knesset members have tried to enact Sabbath legislation, but all their efforts came to naught, and the High Court of Justice has tended to give preference to civil rights over religious values.

When it comes to Shabbat, not only entertainment complexes have changed but also the street scene. Over the years, Jerusalem’s Bar-Ilan Street had been closed to vehicular traffic on Shabbat. After a bitter battle in the 1990s, the High Court ordered it opened to traffic. The right of the individual and freedom of movement took precedence over religion. “The ruling in the Bar-Ilan Street case constitutes an important landmark in casting aside the value of Shabbat, eroding the status quo, and preferring liberal values,” writes Friedman. “It’s a sign indicating what the trend is.”

Hiddush’s Regev actually agrees that the status quo has been eroded, but he says it has gone in both directions. “Various fields, such as draft evasion, expanding religious services and subsidizing the sector, have gone the other way,” he told Haaretz.

Divorcing the Rabbinate

Another field in which the secular public hasn’t been quick to trumpet its gains is on matters of marriage and divorce. This is reflected in part in limitations on who can marry in Israel, as a result of halakha, traditional Jewish law. It is also seen in the requirement of a ceremony in which the man is favored and includes religious ritual, a code of conduct on marital relations and the husband’s control of divorce. But Friedman contends there have been dramatic changes in this regard, too, saying that the Knesset and the courts over the years have diminished rabbinical court’s special authority and exclusive control over religious law on the subject.

So, for example, the high court has accorded recognition to civil marriages performed abroad. The Central Bureau of Statistics reported that by 2013, about 20 percent of couples registered as married had had civil ceremonies abroad. That is in addition to couples who arrange their own private weddings in Israel and forgo state recognition that they are married, though they can be recognized as partners in a civil union (“yeduim batzibur,” in Hebrew).

In addition, in recent years, Israelis have increasingly married abroad in non-Orthodox Jewish ceremonies. In Israel, a breach in the rabbinate’s monopoly on Orthodox weddings was opened through organizations such as Tzohar. “The power of the marketplace is working,” says Rabbi David Stav, Tzohar’s chairman, who acknowledges that the status quo has dramatically eroded. Stav doesn’t view that as necessarily a bad thing. “The idea that we need to get into the veins of secular people over everything and that in the process we are serving Judaism, I think is a mistake.”

As for divorce, Friedman’s study finds the situation relatively stable, but there have been signs of erosion even in that realm. If initially exclusive jurisdiction (among Israeli Jews) over divorce was vested in the rabbinical courts, the civil court system has since taken over ruling on the division of a couple’s property or on alimony payments.

Finally, another particularly central subject that has barely changed involves Jewish dietary laws - kashrut - and the Orthodox chief rabbinate’s monopoly in the field. The High Court of Justice has in fact ruled that kashrut certification cannot be revoked over extraneous issues that are not directly related to dietary practices, but the rabbinate has retained its supreme authority to grant the certification.

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