Imagining an Israel Free From the Grip of Orthodoxy

Israel has no official religion, but for decades has been dominated by Orthodox Judaism and rabbis. What would the country look like if progressive Jews had staked their claim sooner?

Constitutionally, the Jewish state has no official religion, let alone an accepted brand of Judaism. The founding fathers even refused any mention of God in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, preferring instead the cryptic “Rock of Israel.” While Israel could have claimed to be a secular Jewish state for the first three decades of its existence, since Menachem Begin’s Likud came to power in 1977, the hegemony of the Orthodox Rabbinate over wide domains of public life has gradually become an immutable fact.

The situation has barely changed since, even during the brief terms of Labor Prime Ministers Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. Even today, after Yesh Atid's veto helped banish Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism from the government, the influence of organized religion is hard to escape. The national religious party Habayit Hayehudi is a major partner in the coalition, and through them as well as some Likud MKs, ultranationalist settler rabbis continue to hold sway. The Religious Affairs Ministry, still in the hands of the rabbis, has been given extra powers and the elections for Israel's two chief rabbis earlier this year, as expected, ended in complete victory for Haredi nepotism.

Successive governments have resisted Haredi pressure to amend the country's Law of Return in a way that would not allow Reform or Conservative converts to Judaism to receive citizenship. But the fact that only Orthodox rabbis can serve in the Chief Rabbinate, that the state’s budget is skewed heavily toward financing the Haredi and dati education systems, and that rabbis maintain hegemony over national sites as the Western Wall all contribute this reality: That, in Israel, religion implicitly means Orthodox Judaism. Could it ever be different?

Historically, having progressive Judaism -- whether in its Reform or Conservative flavors -- as the dominant religious stream was never in the cards. Israel’s founding fathers were secular Zionist-Socialists; for them religion was the stale Orthodoxy most of them had rejected in youth. David Ben-Gurion believed it was a matter of time before the remaining religious Jews would see the light, as he had in his youth. He even exempted 800 Haredi yeshiva students from military service based on that assumption. He was less happy to allow a separate Orthodox school system to be established, but he caved to the pressure -- just as he agreed to the “religious status quo” in which public services including transportation would shut down on Shabbat, government institutions would adhere to kashrut, and religious authorities would oversee marital law. These early concessions paved the way for the rise of religious political power in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly under Likud governments, due to much higher birthrates and the rise of the settler movement and Shas.

For their part, the progressive movements didn't make much of an effort to stake their place in the state establishment. While the Conservative movement embraced Zionism at an early stage, Reform Judaism had a much more troubled relationship with Jewish nationalism. From its early roots in Germany and then the United States, the larger Reform movement rejected any notion of a return to Zion, in some cases even excising the word from its prayer books. Reform rabbis opposed the Balfour Declaration in 1917, seeing Zionism as the antithesis to their vision of the Jews living proudly in the countries of their birth. Nazi persecution in the 1930s and the growing popularity of Zionism among American Jews began to change that, and the first endorsement of a “rehabilitation of Palestine” and “the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland” came in the 1937 Columbus Platform (which outlined the guiding principles of Reform Judaism). Attempts to establish the first Reform and Conservative communities in the 1930s were unsuccessful, and progressive Judaism only got off to real start in Israel in the late 1950s. By the time the two movements were firmly grounded and began trying to challenge the Orthodox hegemony in the 1980s, mainly through High Court petitions, it was too entrenched. But what if things had worked out differently?

Even bleeding-heart liberals can't resist power

It’s an almost unthinkable hypothesis, but what if Ben-Gurion and his colleagues had embraced progressive Judaism as an alternative to the clerical orthodoxy early on and if Begin had not made his pact with the religious parties? Could the Reform and Conservative movements have made a concerted effort in the 1950s to establish themselves in the new state? What if the small Orthodox communities had not succeeded in regenerating and expanding into such a massive force and hundreds of thousands of progressive American Jews had also immigrated to young Israel, along with the large waves of Holocaust survivors from Europe and of victims of persecution from Arab countries? What if the Reform and Conservative movements had succeeded in attracting the majority of secular Israelis to their tents? Would Israel be a radically different country today if progressive Judaism was its dominant religious culture?

The answer obviously is yes; religion plays a huge role in modern-day Israeli life, even for the non-religious, and a fundamentally different form of religion would have moved it in a different direction. On the other hand, the progressive movements would also have changed drastically if, instead of having a minor presence, they were heavyweight players on the political scene. Power necessitates compromise and ultimately breeds corruption.

Perhaps the most obvious change in Israeli society would have been a much higher degree of cosmopolitanism, or to be more specific, more advanced Americanization. To many outside observers and to some in Tel Aviv, it is easy to believe that Israel is already fully Americanized. This is true to a certain degree when it comes to technology, consumerism and popular culture, but leave the Gush Dan bubble for Jerusalem or head north or south and you will quickly be disabused of any notion of Israel as the 51st state. A large liberal American contingent among Israel’s population (as opposed to the relatively small and mainly religious, right-wing American immigration of late), a major concentration of citizens connected to a culture of civil rights and progressivism -- especially if it became involved in politics -- could have provided the critical mass needed to finally pass a constitution through the Knesset, or at least a bill of rights.

As far as the Israeli-Arab conflict is concerned, an earlier emergence of a large liberal constituency in Israel would probably not have changed it to a major degree, certainly not in the first decades. Even if Israel had been more peace-seeking, it would still need an Arab side to deal with and there was no psychological preparedness for that before the 1970s. But such a constituency could have changed the dynamic between the Jewish majority and the Arab-Israeli sector, or with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza after 1967. An Israel with a progressive community as its main religious bloc would have been much less forgiving of the religious-nationalist settler movement’s attempt to hijack an entire nation into backing its messianic campaign, and much better prepared to back up the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s. And while the success of Israel’s high-tech industry from those years on has been seen as part of the country’s move toward the affluent West, a major liberal influence could have ensured that the fruits of the Startup Nation were reaped by more than a small minority.

If the rabbinical establishment had not been dominated by ultra-Orthodox rabbis, it would have been easier also to integrate new waves of immigration from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, many of whom would have not been expected to submit to humiliating conversion demands. A less ethnocentric and xenophobic society would also likely have proved more welcoming to the tens of thousands of African refugees crossing the Sinai Desert into Israel in recent years.

Still, it’s all too easy to become starry-eyed when considering this hypothetical day-dreaming. Not all of Israel’s problems stem from the power of the Orthodox religious establishment, and it would be wrong to assume that those that are -- even in part -- would necessarily be solved if a progressive leadership wielded the religious power. Indeed, it is almost impossible to believe that an establishment lead by powerful Reform and Conservative rabbis and lay leaders would not be swayed, or even corrupted, by its proximity to power. 

We tend to automatically identify these communities with the liberal-left in Israeli politics today, but had they been much larger, they would also have had to integrate at least some of the other strands in society. How would these progressive movements in Israel have developed if they had included large components of Mizrahi Jews or immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who are traditionally less attuned to liberal democratic values? Would they have become less left-leaning and more nationalist? (Interestingly, while there are no Reform communities across the Green Line, the Conservatives have a handful in the “soft” West Bank settlements of Har Adar and Ma’aleh Adumim and in East Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Gilo.)

Unquestionably, Israel would have been a fundamentally different country if liberal Judaism had played a major part in its development, but the progressive movements would have changed in such a case as well. With political power and state resources at their disposal, there would most likely have been Reform and Conservative rabbis on trial for abusing that power, and it is intriguing to speculate how their followers would have reacted compared with, say, the supporters of Shas leader Aryeh Deri.  

Liberal Israelis and American Jews can lament the hegemony of Orthodoxy over the country’s religious establishment, but they should ask themselves this: Would progressive Judaism truly have changed Israeli public life or would it have been tainted in its efforts to create that change?

Joseph Roth/GPO