In Israel, Religion and State Should Keep Their Distance

Gabi Sheffer
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Gabi Sheffer

One of the main mistakes made by the first government of Israel, under the leadership of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, is that it didn't separate the Jewish religion from the state. This attests, among other things, to the fact that Ben-Gurion and his colleagues in Mapai (the forerunner of Labor) were not genuine socialists. Genuine socialists would have separated religion and state. The failure to do so did not stem from coalition considerations but from a problematic understanding of the essence of Judaism and the state.

It is essential to understand that Judaism is not only a religion but a combination of ethnic, national and religious factors. The Jewish nation started out as ethnic tribes. Whether the Hebrew-Jewish entity began in Aram Naharaim (Mesopotamia) or in present-day Syria and Lebanon, there is clear evidence that these were ethnic groups that merged to create a single entity. And as in other ethno-religious nations, this unification of the Hebrew tribes preceded the "invention" and adoption of the Jewish religion.

For the thousands of years of the existence of "Hebrew-ness" or Judaism, ethnic factors have been of central importance to nationhood. The question "Who is a Jew?" is related not only to religious belief - which is an outlook and a feeling adopted by individuals, families and groups - it is also related to the ethnic-genetic origin of the Jews.

The Jewish nation does not have a single religion: Everyone knows that there are atheists, secular Jews, religious moderates and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews. They are united by their ethnic identity which, as noted, preceded the Jewish religion, even according to the Hebrew Bible.

Religious people themselves recognize this fact, even if they won't admit it. The best evidence that the religious community understands that ethnic affiliation is the essential basis of Judaism is found in rules determining Jewish identity. Two examples are the importance attributed to the Jewish identity of an infant's parents and the demand to maintain distance from other ethnic groups.

In the Diaspora, where there were no independent political Jewish entities, clerics assumed a central place in Jewish communities and decided that it was impossible to separate religion from the Jewish nation. For conceptual reasons, and considerations of self interest, they also made sure to identify Judaism solely as a religion and with the State of Israel when it was established, thereby causing problems in all areas of Jewish life.

Below are several of the significant problems that resulted from a failure to separate religion from the state.

For years there has been a clear preference in Israel for Haredi and religious Jews and their interests over those of secular and atheist Jews, and non-Jews, who are the absolute majority in the country. This is reflected in the official and unofficial domination by religious and Haredi Jews of social and political systems in Israel and, to some degree, of economic systems as well.

This domination has many consequences: Allocation of too many resources to the religious and Haredi communities, including allocations to yeshivas, to their education systems and to synagogues and religious communities; control over compulsory education in a manner that prevents graduates of the Haredi school system from joining the job market; the mass exemption of all the Haredim from military service; a demeaning attitude towards religious and Haredi women and women in general; a demeaning attitude towards gays and lesbians; and an almost racist exclusion of anyone who is not Jewish, in Israel and abroad.

This religious and Haredi domination of Israeli society and politics is of great significance in terms of the attitude towards the Palestinians and the possibility of achieving peace with them, as well as in terms of Israel's status in the Middle East and the rest of the world.

Most of the Haredim and the religious public are opposed to peace with the Palestinians, which will likely involve Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, due to their religious and messianic claims of Jewish "ownership" of the land. For that reason they are also opposed to freezing construction in the settlements. As we know, a significant percentage of the settlers in the settlement blocs and especially in the outposts are religious people and Haredim, and it will be impossible to evacuate them because of their religious beliefs.

The Israeli cultural and educational systems are also controlled by the religious public. This is reflected in their penetrating criticism of textbooks, research studies, books and poems that take a secular and nationalist stance and are opposed to religious domination. Additionally, they exert control over several universities and colleges in Israel and in the West Bank, forcing religious observance on the students studying there. All this is evidence of the unquestioned status of the religious and Haredi communities in Israel.

It should be noted that the idea of the inseparable connection between religion and state is characteristic not only of the religious parties but of several right-wing and centrist parties as well. That is why even in the next government we should not expect significant changes in this area. Such changes would affect the economic, social and political situation in Israel and its relations with the world.

The only way to escape this intolerable situation is by separating religion and state, as is the case in many countries around the world. This will happen only when political parties and private citizens begin to demand it. The sooner the process begins the better it will be for Israel and for many Israelis – even those who are unaware of this issue's profound significance.

The writer is a professor emeritus of the political science department in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

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