An Israeli State Based on Religious Law? It Can Happen

The Turkish experience proves that with years of thorough groundwork, it’s possible to change the character of a secular state.

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Ultra-Orthodox protest against Haredi enlistment in the IDF, Jerusalem.
Ultra-Orthodox protest against Haredi enlistment in the IDF, Jerusalem. Credit: Shiran Granot

“How Israel would look as a state run according to Jewish religious law” was the title of a symposium last Friday at Tel Aviv’s Tzavta Theater. Among the participants were researchers and public figures including Knesset members. The title is pretentious and groundless, I said at the symposium. Still, I couldn’t ignore the comments by speakers such as Prof. Arnon Soffer, a demographer.

There is no doubt that the demographic weight of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist communities is growing. But it’s not at all certain that all streams want to impose Jewish law on our lives.

The only group that wants to is the Hardal, or national-Haredi, segment of the population; they’re part of the religious-Zionist movement with Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) traits. It’s a messianic movement with imperialist aspirations. It seeks to give Judaism and Zionism a character and beliefs that many people find intolerable.

I tend to think that modernity won’t be defeated by Haredism, partly because of the digital media and social networks, which reach the Orthodox and Haredi communities despite the rabbis’ best efforts. But this optimistic assumption might not come true in light of the demographic and social processes taking place in Israel.

In the mid-1990s, I met with the mayor of Istanbul. Even though he was a believing Muslim, he had reservations about the trends Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan represents. He claimed that the Islamists did not aspire to change the face of Turkey; they only wanted to represent the poor in education and health.

No one, he said, had any intention of changing the country’s image as shaped by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He reminded me that in the Turkish army, which still had a lot of power at the time, prayer was forbidden. The Israeli ambassador, who was present at the meeting, was less optimistic. He spoke about the incessant sermons in Turkey’s mosques that called for making Turkey an Islamic country.

When Erdogan came to power he was careful not to get into confrontations with the army. But gradually he increased his power, got his own people into the military and began fighting the generals. A few years later it was clear the army had lost its Ataturkian character and had become a branch under Erdogan’s control. This takeover was accompanied by increasing Islamization and a change in the law enforcement system. Only Erdogan’s hope of acceptance into the European Union is keeping him from going further.

Anyone who wants to be pessimistic about Israel can cite the Turkish model. In Israel, rabbis incessantly give sermons about the importance of having religion rule our lives. Most religious people who attend synagogue don’t object to commandments like wiping out the descendants of Amalek — and Amalek means the Arabs, wherever they may be.

It’s true the army in Israel is always loyal to the civilian government. But the  increasing number of Hardal and religious-Zionist officers will present us with a difficult challenge. Israel’s secular and democratic character is not assured. What happened in Turkey proves that with years of thorough groundwork, it’s possible to change the character of a secular state with a Western orientation. It’s possible to strengthen the rule of religion.