The Noiseless Retreat of Israeli Democracy

Religion has seeped ever more deeply into the state, to the point where it is hard to draw the boundary between them.

A Jerusalem yeshiva
Olivier Fitoussi

The kitchen window of the kibbutz boarding school had been decorated with political stickers put up by previous tenants. I remember in particular one dark blue one, bearing the play-on-words slogan “hafraDAT mimedina,” an elision of “hafradat hadat mihamedina” − separation of religion and state.

That was 14 years ago, and the meanings of all the slogans that filled that kitchen window have changed: The sense of urgency evoked by “Peace Now” lost some of its credibility. Two states for two nations migrated gradually from the left into the mainstream, and ever since Benjamin Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech it has served the right-wing camp, like a canopy that conceals the divide between the prime minister’s declarations and his intentions.

But these changes pale before the bruising suffered by the idea in that deep blue sticker, which sought to draw a boundary between government institutions and the religious establishment − a line that even a Jewish state must draw if it genuinely seeks also to be democratic.

“Democracy and secularism are the same thing,” wrote the French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès in an essay from 1904. “Democracy is equal rights. But there is no equality if the belief of one citizen or another in one religion or another gives him privileges or brings him shame” (loosely translated).

Religion, any religion, is more than just a belief in God. It is norms and values, interests and a narrative. In today’s Israel, religion is also the belief in Greater Israel and the 177 million shekels ($51 million) that just last week were disbursed to the settlement division of the World Zionist Organization (to which the Freedom of Information Law does not apply), which funds construction beyond the Green Line.

Religion is Am Yisrael Echad, an organization whose representatives visit nonreligious state schools and talk to male and female students, in separate groups, about the Orthodox Jewish religious concept of shomer negia − restricting physical contact with members of the opposite sex to one’s spouse and close family. Religion is the principle of torato omanuto (religious study is one’s livelihood), which divides the non-Haredi Israeli who avoids military service (a draft evader) from the ultra-Orthodox Israeli who does the same (and who supports the army through prayer, while qualifying for state funding). Religion is the Religious Services Ministry, which provides religious services only to Jews, and it is the head covering on the illustration of a female teacher in a workbook for first-grade students.

Religion is the Jewish Identity Administration, which tries to bring the erring secular sheep back to the herd of Shabbat observance and consulting with a rabbi. It is all the Reform rabbis who are not recognized by the state, the fines levied on restaurateurs who put up a sign saying “Kosher but without a certificate.” Religion is the immigration laws, which allow for the imprisonment of asylum seekers in the desert but give a stipend and citizenship to anyone who comes here with the right last name. It is the prime minister, who demands that even the Palestinian president affirms that

Israel is Jewish.

Week after week, throughout all the years that have passed since the stickers on that boarding-school kitchen window, religion has seeped ever more deeply into the state, to the point where it is hard to draw the boundary between them.

Despite the fact that its natural place is in the heart, the home and the place of worship of its faithful, religion has strayed beyond these gardens and is now growing wild. Like the settlements, which create facts on the ground by seizing territory deep inside the West Bank, so too has religion spread beyond its natural habitat, forcing democracy into retreat.

Apparently, some retreats happen silently, without resistance.