Religion and the city: A complicated relationship in Israel

Israel is 70 years old, but in many domains the regulation of the relationship between religion and state predates independence.

November 11, 2018 04:56
3 minute read.
Religion and the city: A complicated relationship in Israel

A man stands outside a Tel Aviv supermarket open 24/7, including Shabbat. (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)


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If Israel were a Facebook page, the definition of its relationship with religion would be, “It’s complicated.” And the fact is that ever since the country was born, and even before, the relationship has been a highly charged and complex issue, influencing life in Israel but also having a significant impact on the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. What complicates the relationship even more is that some of the religion-state arrangements and “deals” are not made on the national level, but rather locally. And so, every mayor in the country can have a real impact not only on the public space in his or her own town but also on politics and this relationship at the national level. This is bad news, because the situation produces significant chaos in the religion-state relationship; at the same time – it might also be seen as good news, because it makes it possible to fine-tune the presence of religion in the public space to suit the character of each local community. What is clear is that this subject merits serious attention when we talk about local elections in Israel, which were held on October 30.

Israel is 70 years old, but in many domains the regulation of the relationship between religion and state predates independence. The provision of religious services, commerce on Shabbat, public transportation, and other issues were all regulated in the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community. Because the British wielded central authority for the country as a whole, it was not possible to enact ordinances to govern this relationship at that level. The solution was to delegate authority to Jewish localities to deal with the issue within their own borders. In Tel Aviv, for example, in 1934 a directive was issued in the wake of a municipal bylaw, prohibiting buses, cars, and taxicabs from traveling on city streets on Shabbat, even if they belonged to non-Jews.

When the state came into existence, some of the regulations from the Mandate period were carried over into new Israeli legislation. Although they were updated and modified, the system left municipalities with extensive power to determine the relationship between religion and the specific city and the Jewish character of the public space in each. For example, on the national level the only restriction on commercial activity on Shabbat is the social legislation that outlaws employing a person on his or her weekly day of rest; by contrast, regulations on the opening or closure of businesses on Shabbat are anchored in municipal bylaws. The municipality has the right to decide whether stores, restaurants and cafés, movie houses, theaters, and museums will operate within the area of its jurisdiction. In a study I conducted with Gilad Wiener, at the Israel Democracy Institute, we found that an overwhelming majority of Jewish localities in Israel (83%) permit restaurants and cafés to be open on Shabbat; and a quarter (27%) allows movie houses and theaters to operate. And although retail commerce is outlawed in the majority of Jewish localities, in many places the authorities have chosen not to enforce the law and in effect permit lively commercial activity.

Municipalities also play an important role in the provision of religious services to their residents; in some towns they do so directly, in the majority – through religious councils. Here too, the municipality can influence the nature and scope of the religious services provided. It can choose, for example, to allocate budgets only to the town’s Orthodox community, or to support religious activity by Reform and Conservative congregations as well.

This situation, in which religion-and-state arrangements can vary from one street to the next, is strange, because these issues resonate on a national level and go to the core of the delicate balance between Israel’s Jewish and democratic identities. On the other hand, this situation allows for greater flexibility and more freedom for citizens to choose their way of life, and how they want to spend their Saturdays. This situation is far from ideal. Were it feasible, it would be preferable to regulate these core issues through a national consensus. But given the political stagnation and the stubborn adherence on the national level to a status quo that no longer really exists, for now – this may be the best solution that we can find. In any case, the issue demands our attention in all discussions on local government and the relationship between religion and state – and, if you will, between religion and city – in Israel. 

Dr. Shuki Friedman is director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute and a lecturer in law at the Peres Academic Center

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