Women wearing a niqab at the Senate in The Hague. STR / ANP / AFP

Rightist Zealots Have an Unlikely Partner in the War on Secularism

The multiculturalist left in Israel and elsewhere has become so extremist in its embrace of groups that reject democracy that it has turned into the useful idiot of rightist zealots that advocate the supremacy of certain religious and ethnic communities, and undermine the legitimacy of pluralism



In December 1992, in the Indian city of Ayodhya, the 16th-century Babri Masjid (Babur Mosque) was destroyed by radical Hindu nationalists. Riots and ethnic violence ensued between Muslims and Hindus across the country, and 2,000 people were killed on both sides. Twenty-seven years later, on November 9, 2019, the Indian Supreme Court gave its green light for Hindus to build a temple at the site where the mosque once stood, signaling that the current BJP party was free to firmly assert the religious supremacy of Hindus in India. This disturbing series of events could be an indication of where Israel may be headed to if it does not become a secular state.

More then 70 years after its creation, the relationship between state and religion in Israel remains unresolved. More precisely, the state is more under the control of rabbinical dictates than it has ever been (the recent initiatives of local municipalities to offer public transportation on Shabbat do not change this fact).

The separation of state and religion is viewed everywhere in the post-enlightenment West as a sign of political progress and a key prerogative of liberal democracy, but for the last two decades, one segment of the Israeli left has become either soft or confused in its struggle to achieve that separation. In fact, Yair Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman, two political figures who are not generally associated with the left, have become entrusted with waging the struggle, though it has been traditionally been one of the key values of the left. No new Shulamit Aloni has arisen to take the place of the longtime civil-rights warrior (who died in 2014), because the issue of a secular state has lost, for some left-wing intellectuals and activists, its edge and glamor.

There are a few reasons for this. Through the system of parliamentary democracy and coalitions, left-wing political parties learned to desensitize themselves to the aberration that ultra-Orthodox parties represent for a democracy (in a democracy, any party that prohibits women from running for office or regards divine law as superior to state law should be banned).

Another reason for the left’s abandonment of the question is that its agenda has been hijacked either by issues of social and economic inequality or by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even as members of the camp fail to understand how deeply intertwined these two subjects are with the secularity of the state.

There is a third and important reason for the desertion of the left: During the 1980s and ‘90s, through the global networks of university education, which were dominated by the United States, Israeli academics began importing such American intellectual concepts as post-colonialism, multiculturalism, postmodernism and cultural relativism. Under their influence, these scholars became critical of the premises of liberalism, viewing secularism not as a way to organize political power but as a practice of white elites, not as a broad universal frame but as a sneaky way to control and coerce religious groups and cultures. Meretz became “an Ashkenazi party” and its secular voters were recast by the soft left as “white” and privileged. More recently, the Labor Party, in attempting to attract the votes of Mizrahim, who are more likely to be religiously traditional, if not Orthodox, toned down its secular identity (previous Labor chairman Avi Gabbay periodically referred to his own attachment to Yiddishkeit, and his successor, Amir Peretz, recruited Orli Levi-Abekasis, thus signaling that the Labor party was changing its DNA and wanted to be more attuned to tradition). The result is for all to see: The struggle for the separation of religion and state is now in the hands of center and right-wing parties. In fact, one could say that attacking secularity and liberalism has become an intellectual hobby of the left itself (see, for example, Carolina Landsmann’s interview with sociologist Nissim Mizrachi, Haaretz, Jan. 11).

Secular state: not what you think

A secular state is different from a secularized society. Secularization is a social process that affects all social groups. If in the 15th century, it was difficult not to believe in God, in the 21st century, we are far less likely to invoke God, whether to explain a natural disaster (no longer viewed by most as a divine punishment), a crime (not committed against God but against other human beings), or when we modern people approach significant decisions in our life (we marry or choose a career to suit our needs and not in order to follow God’s commands). Additionally, many religious communities today live within a secularized world, using technology, having bank accounts, and marrying for love.

A secular state is a different matter. It is neither a belief nor a worldview but a way of organizing political power by separating religion from the institutions of the state (deciding, for example, that public and state-funded schools do not have religious requirements for their pupils, or that civil servants may perform secular civil marriage ceremonies, etc). Secularity emerged through a slow process. During the 16th, 17th and even 18th centuries, Europe was ravaged by bloody wars of religion. These conflicts were long, cruel and wrenching, and took a heavy toll on the populations of France, the Holy Roman Empire and England. The factors behind these wars were varied (territorial and political) but their justification was often religious (Protestants and Catholics felt the other side had betrayed the true Christian doctrine). The Westphalia treaties that ended these wars in 1648 constituted the most important political event of the 17th century. The Peace of Westphalia instilled in the collective mind the ideas that peace should be the goal of international relations and that states should not interfere with the internal affairs of other states, and thus was the precursor of the contemporary international order.

The liberal state was shaped by similar ideas: that it should not interfere in people’s personal lives and religious consciences and it should promote social peace between various groups living in its midst. After a long process of trial and error, and in order to avoid new religious wars, philosophers and political leaders crafted the idea of the religious neutrality of the state, an idea that has become the keystone of the modern, liberal state. If a state was to represent all groups living in its midst, it had to give up its self-definition in religious or ethnic terms and become universal. Such a state could guarantee social peace by treating all members of various groups equally and by arbitrating fairly between them in a case of conflict.

The example of Ayodhya shows exactly how a state which is not religiously neutral behaves when there is a religious conflict: It takes sides; it privileges the religion of the dominant group over that of the minority; it implicitly (or explicitly) legitimizes majority’s violence; it disguises brutal force as law. More crucially: It radicalizes a religion that was previously soft and tolerant by blending it with the narrow nationalism of one religious group and thus actually foments religious conflict.

STR / AFP

It follows from this that a secular state is not anti-religious. The opposite is true: Secular states take religion very seriously, so seriously that they want to create the conditions by which each and every individual can pursue their own religious belief according to their conscience. It is the opposite of Soviet atheism which forbade religion. A secular state delegates to communities and to individuals the task of discussing, fine-tuning, interpreting their religious texts or values. It views the state as unqualified to decide for others how they should marry, be buried, be divorced or when to shop. The secular state does not view the bureaucratic, rational and soul-less institution of the state as qualified to regulate matters of religious conscience.

In many countries, the religious right (or far right) has traditionally rejected the idea of the secular state. French Catholics, American evangelicals or Israeli ultra-Orthodox have long viewed the secular state with contempt (recently, William Barr, a devoted Trumpist, blasted “militant secularists;” Israeli Haredim have long viewed the Zionist state in instrumental terms, as what has been called the “donkey of the messiah”).

But rightist zealots are no longer alone. In the last few decades, they have received unexpected help from the multiculturalist left, which rejects secularism and is willing to compromise with religion on what should have been matters of principle. To understand the weakening of secularity among the left, let me make a detour via France, where debates on secularity have raged for decades.

New battle cry

Ever since the “affair of the scarf” in the Paris suburb of Creil in 1989, in which three young girls were prohibited from attending their state-funded school with a Muslim-style scarf covering their heads, the French left has been fractured in two, with one part traditionally socialist and universalist, and one part multiculturalist (also known as “progressist” left). With decolonization movements spreading throughout the world by the 1970s and 1980s, multiculturalism gained considerable traction in Western societies. With the independence of Algeria (in 1962), and the increased immigration from former colonies to France, post-colonialism came to haunt France, as its colonial past and war crimes resonated with the widespread social exclusion of the Arab immigrants within French society.

In 2003, French President Jacques Chirac established a committee, led by state ombudsman Bernard Stasi, to examine the question of religious symbols being worn in public, and in 2004 a law was passed forbidding both primary- and secondary- school students of any faith from attending school with any religiously distinctive sign. One side of the left defended the legislation, which also applied, for example, to Jews wearing skullcaps, in the name of the idea that the republic should be “one and indivisible” (as stipulated in a 1905 constitutional law separating state and religion). Religious freedom was a key principle, but, it was argued, one that belonged to the private sphere, what people chose to do in their homes, their synagogues or mosques. Some feminists joined in because they viewed the scarf as a mark of control of the girl’s body by her father and husband. (Women’s modesty, in all religions in the world, is established and controlled by men).

Another segment of the left not only opposed the law, but went so far as to oppose secularity itself: The liberal state was in fact fundamentalist, its belief in secularity was coercive, and when imposed on Muslims, it mirrored the colonial practices of the not-so-distant past. Here too another feminist camp joined in and argued that the religion of these veil-clad girls was a form of resistance to, and attempt at winning autonomy from, a white colonial state that wanted to limit their freedom. The religion of these Muslims and of other minority groups thus became a point of struggle within the left itself.

In 2011, the French journalist, activist against anti-black racism and critic of secular liberalism Rokhaya Diallo, who is of Senegalese and Gambian descent, signed a petition expressing a lack of support for the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo after its premises were set on fire (four years later, 11 people from the newspaper were horrifically murdered). Her justification (and that of the many French left-wing intellectuals who joined her) for refusing to support Charlie Hebdo was that this act of arson was not worse than that of burning a mosque, and therefore unworthy of the media attention it received.

The same “progressist” left that had been eager to defend the religious freedom of young Muslim women to wear the veil, now wondered if the magazine’s caricatures mocking Islam had not gone too far and were not in fact “Islamophobic.” “Islamophobia” became, overnight, the new battle cry of the French progressist left, combining the defense of powerless groups with the defense of their religion. The disagreement between the two lefts was glaringly on display on November 10, 2019, when the Socialist Party refused to join a left-wing demonstration against Islamophobia organized by the Collective Against Islamophobia in France.

The story of the attitude of the Israeli post-colonial left to religion bears a family resemblance to this. Like Muslim immigrants in France, Mizrahi Jews who immigrated to Israel in the 1950s from North Africa and the Middle East were “Orientalized” (made into foreign and primitive Others) and excluded from the centers of economic, political and cultural power in the country. In 1952, over 80 percent of people living in immigrant transit camps (ma’abarot), were Mizrahim. In the 1960s, only 27 percent of Mizrahi boys of high-school age were actually in school (mostly vocational). The rest were on the street or working. The lands farmed by moshavim (cooperative agricultural communities) belonging to mostly Moroccan immigrants, in contrast to the lands held by predominantly Ashkenazi kibbutzim, were ultimately worthless, since the state granted them only three-year leases. In religious terms, Mizrahi Israelis were generally traditionalists, who did not view secularity with the same ideological passion as the Ashkenazi early settlers of Israel (or French Republicans) did. Moreover, like their Muslim counterparts in France, a large number of them became more traditional, religious and even ultra-Orthodox, often in response to the deep inequality and social exclusion they experienced.

The similarities between French Muslims and Israeli Mizrahim end here, however. The fate of Mizrahim quickly veered from that of the French Muslims: Given the fact that Israel allowed ultra-Orthodox parties to participate in the democratic life of Israel, in 1984 the Haredi Shas party was founded, giving Mizrahim political representation and power. This was easy, as the Israeli state had never been firmly secular (only the people who ran the state were). Shas added itself to the list of Ashkenazi fundamentalist parties that had existed since the birth of the state. Religion, and voting against the quasi-colonialist left were the only ways Mizrahim could get political representation, and had the effect of turning them into a solid and stable core of the right and the religious right. This religious electorate changed Israeli politics forever in unseating the long-standing political power of the overwhelmingly Ashkenazi left. (Since 1977, only 3 governments can be said to have been led by candidates from the traditional Labor left).

Shas created a true dilemma for the new cadre of Mizrahi left-wing intellectuals, and it reverberates to this day. As an advocate of oppressed and excluded groups, was the Haredi Shas party to be endorsed? As the party of what was perceived as the Ashkenazi elite, was the left-wing Meretz to be supported? Some distinguished members of the post-colonial left (for example, Prof. Sami Shalom Sheetrit) declared their allegiance to Shas, a party that excludes women from its electoral list, but which represented far more vocally the interests of the Mizrahim who had been so widely discriminated against. Some Mizrahi feminists, such as Efrat Shani-Shitrit, joined forces with the party, rejecting “white feminism” and effectively giving priority to ethnicity over gender.

David Eldan / GPO

Starting in the late ‘80s, a portion of the Israeli left responded to the increasing realization of the large-scale discrimination against Mizrahim in both past and present in the same way as the multiculturalist branch of the French left responded to the Islamization of the banlieue. Its members (rightly) denounced the blatant quasi-colonial racism and economic exploitation to which Mizrahim had been victim, and they did so by espousing (or at least by not distancing themselves from) the religious program of Shas, now seen as a mark of cultural dignity.

Meretz started suffering from the image of a hopelessly Ashkenazi and elite party, and secularity was no longer a sine qua non element of the left-wing agenda. The so-called progressist left, both in France and in Israel, pushed the binary logic with which it often apprehends the world to its absurd conclusion: If elites were secular and if the working classes (Muslims in France, Mizrahim in Israel) were religious or traditional (in 2009, 66 percent of Ashkenazim were secular, while only 27 percent of Mizrahim defined themselves that way), then this meant that secularity was a practice of domination; conversely, if religion restored the dignity of the oppressed, then that meant it should be endorsed by the left. In Israel, as in France, secularity became suspect of hiding a class or ethnic domination, of being just another ploy to exert power on religious minorities to exclude them.

Another argument of the multiculturalist left against the separation of state and religion is that the secular state’s pretension to universal neutrality is a sham. Why? Because neutrality does not exist. All multiculturalists are postmodernists at heart, and in that sense, hope all of us can outgrow the childish idea that some spaces, utterances, practices are more neutral than others. For them, a secular state can no more make a claim to neutrality and universality than a theocracy can. (By this reasoning Saudia Arabia is equivalent to France in representing only a specific religion and ethnicity.)

And finally, the last and probably most sophisticated argument against secularity (offered, for example, by scholar and Van Leer director Prof. Shai Lavi) is that it cannot pretend to be both an arbiter and a player in the social game (the attempt to overcome this contradiction is at the core of “Gabison-Medan Covenant” drafted two decades ago as an attempt to find a modus vivendi for coexistence between religious and secular groups. According to such a view, a state cannot claim to be secular, on the one hand, and to arbitrate in conflicts between religious and secular people, on the other.

The critique of liberalism has become a cottage industry, one that weakens considerably the values defended by the left, in which the secularity of the state ought to remain central. The progressist left, in France and in Israel, now treats secularity as one belief system among others – if all ideas and beliefs are constructed, they are also equivalent in their worth – and bases a great deal of its intellectual mileage on two logical mistakes: If all human beings are equal, then it follows their cultures, ideas, and beliefs are also equal. And the second: If white racist men are also secular, then secularism is racism (Diallo calls liberal states “national-secular,” which just happens to resonate with “national-socialist”). This is how secularity became at best one belief among others, and at worst a dominant and even racist ideology (the ideology of those who dominate and want to dominate others).

For all these reasons, when Israeli Orthodox groups demand gender segregation in institutions of higher education and other public spaces, some segments of the left responded in an astonishingly confused way: indeed if everyone is entitled to their culture, why shouldn’t religious groups be entitled to segregate women in public spaces? (It is segregation and not separation, since the center stage of any public space is always occupied by men).

Confusion reigns, and what is needed is a response to the progressist left, which has dismissed the importance of secularity.

Religious control

Multicultural approaches have been imported wholesale from North American and European societies. But the multiculturalism of Canadians, the French or the Americans cannot be imported to Israel, because in all of the former, it is framed by a powerful secular state (separation of state and church is inscribed in and guaranteed by the French and American constitutions, and in Canada, religion has been effectively sidelined by the courts). In contrast, the Israeli state contains religious laws in many key areas and gives a clear advantage to religious groups. Education, immigration, citizenship and laws of personal status – normally key prerogatives of the secular state – are either controlled or heavily influenced by the religious hierarchies. If we add to these groups the religious settlers and the enormous budgets they receive from the state, then it is easy to grasp a frightening image of Israel as controlled by a variety of religious groups.

Another reason why multiculturalism cannot be imported is that multiculturalism has been a fundamentally democratic movement that aimed to extend democratic rights to groups that historically suffered from exclusion, discrimination and violence (homosexuals, women, blacks, Mizrahim, Muslims). Yet, this is not the case for religious groups in Israel (whether Mizrahi or Ashkenazi), who are politically represented and constitute a strong political force that can make or break coalitions; who control several ministries; who have some incomprehensible privileges (exempted from the army, they get full subsidy for religious studies, and have a scandalously 29 percent higher budget per capita for their high schools than secular ones), and to whom have been ceded (in the settlers’ case) the prerogative to decide the country’s military and political future. To this mind-boggling collection of privileges we should add that most religious parties and groups have no intention of extending or furthering rights to freedom of movement, to representation and for some of them to vote of women, homosexuals, Arabs, Palestinians, immigrants or refugees and sometimes do not seem to accept the principle of the rule of law (for example, in ultra-Orthodox communities evading the draft or making the denunciation of a child abuser into an act of betrayal).

Thus, Israeli multiculturalism takes place in a state that already has deep religious foundations, in which religious groups wield tremendous political power and do not subscribe to the democratic agenda of multiculturalism. To let religious segregationists benefit from the moral immunity granted by Western multiculturalism is to give them yet one more advantage in a context in which they already enjoy an incomprehensible amount of privileges: that of not being held accountable to democratic norms. This position is particularly clear in matters of gender equality.

Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, similar to Islam in its way, spends a great deal of its energies excluding women, by viewing them as impure (when they are menstruating), unfit to be judges or witnesses in court, unfit to grant divorce to their husbands, unfit to undertake a life of study, unfit to write a Torah scroll, unfit to officiate in a synagogue, unfit to receive state benefits as a Yeshiva scholar, unfit to draft and change laws, unfit to speak or sing in public, unfit to be counted in a minyan, undeserving, in other words, of the political, economic and spiritual status enjoyed by men. No wonder women are excluded from men’s space: All social groups that are as thoroughly dominated by another group as women are, must exist in a parallel space (for example, Jews in many medieval Christian societies lived in designated neighborhoods, just as slaves were kept in separate quarters).

אילן אסייג

As private beliefs held by individuals and communities, these religious views, however abhorrent, must be protected by the secular state (as is the case in France or the United States, even though these beliefs may actually conflict with the constitution of these countries). But the beliefs that can and must be protected when they are private, must be intensely scrutinized when they are carried over into public spaces and harbored by representatives of the state. The liberal state is premised on the fundamental view that we cannot and must not carry over meanings and practices of the private sphere into the public one (for example, starting a public ceremony thanking God for not having made me a woman or a non-Jew, as is said in the morning prayer liturgy).

Gender exclusion is tolerated in the private sphere but intolerable in the public sphere. In democracies, public spaces ought to represent key democratic values: universalism, inclusiveness and equality. (Léon Blum, a Jew, could become prime minister of France three times despite the virulent ambient anti-Semitism of the time because the French state, both before and after World War II, was universalist, secular and neutral). Neutrality and universality are of course always imperfect and partial (since the state has a culture and a language; since some remain excluded), but they are far better than the alternatives. This is also why secularity can be both a player and an arbiter: Only in secular states can groups and communities have the space to negotiate between themselves how to live together. The only alternative to this would be a religious state serving as both the arbiter and a player, which, as the Israeli and Indian cases suggest, will fail, since religion almost always hardens the boundaries of the group. Only a secular state constitutes an umbrella large enough to permit coexistence of different groups, so that they can live side by side and reach compromises in a non-coercive atmosphere.

Dissolves into anarchy

In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt suggests that, “[T]he nation-state cannot exist once its principle of equality before the law has broken down. Without this legal equality, which originally was destined to replace the older laws and orders of the feudal society, the nation dissolves into an anarchy mass of over- and underprivileged individuals. Laws that are not equal for all revert to rights and privileges, something contradictory to the very nature of nation-states.”

Secularity is a core principle of the nation-state, not just one belief among others, because it strengthens the principle of equality before the law. India is a good example of what happens when the state gives up secularity: It favors one group (Hindus) over another (Muslims), creates the conditions for the oppression of the latter by the former and radicalizes a religion to serve nationalist purposes. Secularity is a core principle of the liberal state because it helps engineer social peace and social inclusion far better than any other method.

It is not by chance that social unrest has recently erupted in India: Once the secular character of the state is eroded, the peace between religious groups breaks down as they start competing with each other and as one group asserts its supremacy. This is exactly what happened in Israel when the ultra-Orthodox who enjoy state power sidelined and delegitimized Conservative and Reform Judaism, and have increasingly been encroaching on secular prerogatives. Only secular states enable people of different beliefs to stop competing to assert their truth as the only valid one; only such states can allow people to have whatever crazy or repellent belief they want without society being threatening.

Moreover: A secular state makes religion flourish because, to involve the state in religion is to kill its spiritual essence, as all officially sanctioned religions become, in due time, repulsive and non-credible.

Finally, secular states are better able to promote a common good because they enable citizens to temporarily suspend their membership in tight-knit ethnic and religious communities in order to achieve a common good, which is embodied by the key values necessary for diverse groups to coexist in mutual respect and equality. To suspend one’s allegiance to one’s group does not mean to abandon or erase one’s identity. One suspends one’s identity when as an Arab, he or she demonstrates against anti-Semitism (as was seen recently in the U.S.), when a man joins women to fight sexism; when a Jew joins African-Americans in their struggle for civil rights, when an Ashkenazi fights to have Mizrahim populate and admitted in large numbers to, and leading, universities, when a Mizrahi opposes racism toward Arabs, when an Orthodox Jew supports the right of a Reform Jewish woman to pray at the Western Wall. Being able to suspend one’s particular identity means to extend and expand the concentric circles of one’s moral identification and moral imagination, something that can happen only in secular states.

A survey conducted in 2018 by the Israel Democracy Institute found that secular-Jewish citizens were far more likely to be tolerant of Arabs than were religious Jews, suggesting a relationship between religion and racism and conversely, a connection between secularity and willingness to tolerate others. In comparative international studies, sociologist Phil Zuckerman has claimed that the least religious societies, like Denmark and Sweden, have the lowest rates of violent crime and homicide, political corruption, and intolerance of racial and ethnic minorities; and they have the greatest protection of women’s rights and political and civil liberties.

The multiculturalist left – the one willing to embrace and make excuses for the groups who are indifferent or inimical to democratic agendas – has unwittingly become the “useful idiot” of reactionary forces in society, those that want to assert the supremacy of one ethnic and religious group over other groups, those that want to render religious pluralism illegitimate, those for whom the exclusion of women from public spaces is as legitimate as their inclusion.

Critiquing liberalism can give one the thrill of transgression, and that’s fine, as long as social democracy is not threatened. But when the house is burning, the incessant critique of liberalism smacks of intellectual irresponsibility. Liberalism has made many mistakes, some of them unforgivable, but the last time I checked, we had not found a better way to live together. The key agenda of the left – a just solution to the Palestinian conflict, and equality of opportunity for women, Arabs and Mizrahim – can be accomplished only in a secular state. But right now that state is increasingly controlled by a wide variety of religious groups determined not only to hold on to power, but to grab more of it. The task ahead of us is this one: Explain relentlessly, as far and wide as we can, that only the separation of religion and state will allow the uniquely diverse and heterogeneous groups comprising Israeli society hold onto a center; only a secular state will help religious and secular live in peace (Jewish orthodoxy has flourished in non-Jewish secular states: It doesn’t require state power).

Only a secular state will help Judaism, in all its forms, flourish. Short of that, we can all expect conflict, inequality before the law, disaffection of the country by the young, and economic decay.

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