ISRAEL IS defined by law as a “Jewish and democratic state.”
However, many Israelis disagree about the meaning of each of these terms and how to synthesize them. And this disagreement likewise percolates deeply into the very foundations of the partnership between Israel and a large segment of Diaspora Jewry.
What is the nature of this disagreement? How should it be addressed? The relationship between religion and state has been in full-fledged crisis mode for decades.
As per the status quo, decisions on key religious issues are implemented with an ultra-Orthodox worldview through the Chief Rabbinate and Israeli politics. Specifically, this haredi monopoly applies to issues such as the definition of Jewish identity (who is a Jew?); avenues of joining the Jewish people (how does one convert?); personal status (marriage and divorce); the nature of Israel’s public spaces (the Sabbath); status of women in various contexts; funding of religious services; and kashrut.
Although these arrangements are enforced only in Israel, they have had a negative impact on the country’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry, where the Orthodox are only a minority. For many Jews outside of Israel, a non-Orthodox religious community is a defining feature of Jewish identity. Yet Israel treats such non-Orthodox streams unfairly.
The state does not recognize the religious validity of their activities in important fields, such as conversion, and it discriminates against them in various domains, including prayer at the Western Wall.
Members of non-Orthodox religious communities are regularly subjected to insulting statements by Israeli public figures – representatives of the haredi community, among many others.
The harmful result is a growing estrangement between the sons and daughters of the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora. Religion, which should be an element that deepens Jewish identity and the meaning of living a Jewish life, has become a centrifugal force, distancing Jews from each other.
For years, the Israel Democracy Institute, along with other Israeli institutions, has worked to devise balanced solutions to each of the main issues of this disagreement. It is our belief that these solutions would be acceptable to the majority of Jews in Israel, if presented to them directly and free of political pressures. However, the secular ruling parties, which rotate in and out of office, have almost totally avoided making changes to the regulations that govern issues of religion and state.
Why do Israeli politics give in to haredi preferences? The main reason is that the Israeli public is not sufficiently engaged in the matter to feel a need to take responsibility for issues of religion and state. The Israeli agenda is overloaded with other challenges—security, foreign policy and socioeconomic.
On the other hand, the haredi parties, which represent only about 10 percent of Israeli society, use all their political power to implement their preferences regarding religion and state issues. These matters are at the top of their agenda, and they are willing to join any government, right- or left-wing, that is willing to maintain existing arrangements in this domain.
Thus, it has become a foregone conclusion that a party that wants to form a government must bow to haredi demands on issues of religion and state.
THE SOLUTION can come only from a significant change in Israeli public opinion. The general public will not join the struggle until it understands that the current arrangement does not affect only people who require specific religious services, and certain minorities, such as immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Reform Jews. The Israeli public must understand that religion and state issues have a bearing on the very meaning of Judaism in our generation and on the character of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
Israelis must be made aware that surrendering to the haredi minority’s demands is fraying the threads of unity that bind Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, thus deteriorating Diaspora Jewry’s commitment to the State of Israel and Zionism, and weakening Jewish identity among Jews in Israel and abroad.
So dire are the circumstances that what appears to be little more than homegrown coalition compromises on issues such as the Western Wall or funding of non-Orthodox streams, are in fact a threat to the foundations of the common peoplehood of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.
This is not a call to oppose the haredim; their views are valuable and important. However, it is necessary to adopt arrangements that respectfully balance different worldviews. Appropriate solutions must maintain the official place of religion in Israel, while respecting the democratic values that are an integral part of the identity of both Israel and Jews of the Diaspora.
The public campaign for such changes must be strong enough to force Israeli politics to react. And it must dispel ignorance.
Repair is required, and without delay. Prof. Yedidia Stern is vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute.
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