It all started on the evening of April 30, 1973. The Watergate scandal was at its peak and Richard Nixon decided to address the nation live from the Oval Office. Two top presidential aides, implicated in the scandal, had resigned and Nixon wanted to try to ease the American people’s concerns and show that he was still in control.
At the end of his speech, Nixon said that earlier in the day, while still at his Camp David retreat, he had looked at his calendar and noticed that there were 1,361 days left to his term.
“Tonight, I ask for your prayers to help me in everything that I do throughout the days of my presidency,” Nixon said. “God bless America and God bless each and every one of you.”
It took a president embroiled in a criminal scandal to invoke God’s name. Ronald Reagan took it one step further using the phrase to finish almost every speech he gave throughout his eight years in the White House. Since then, every US president uses the phrase at the end of major speeches. Donald Trump did so last week at the end of his first speech before Congress.
Now think for a moment, when the last time was that you heard a speech by an Israeli prime minister that ended with “God bless you” or any blessing for that matter.
While Menachem Begin often peppered his speeches with biblical verses, for the last 30 years almost no one else has. Definitely not in Hebrew. In English, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has invoked God’s name although just a couple of times and only within an American context.
In November, for example, he released a video to congratulate Trump on wining the elections and he ended with the following line: “May God bless America, may God bless Israel, may God bless our enduring alliance.” He used a similar line when concluding his controversial address before Congress in 2015.
But that is only when speaking in English. A speech in Hebrew? Forget about it.
But why? Israel is a self-identified Jewish state that has a Chief Rabbinate and lacks separation of religion and state. Blessing God and the people in a speech should not be a problem.
But it is, and this is the case precisely because of the lack of separation between religion and state in Israel. In America, where the separation is a basic tenet protected by the US Constitution, presidents can invoke God’s name in speeches since they will not be accused of religious coercion. The fact that there is separation allows presidents to be religious.
In Israel, if a prime minister finishes a speech with “God bless Israel,” either the haredi parties in the government will get upset because of the use of God’s name in vain or the secular will protest against the alleged religious coercion.
Why the difference? The answer has to do with the politicization of religion in Israel. While Israel is a Jewish state, the government’s control over life-cycle events – like marriage, divorce and conversions – turns people away from Judaism.
Dr. Micha Goodman, the bestselling author and head of the Ein Prat Midrasha, gives circumcision as an example for how politicization turns Israelis away from religion. “There is no law for Israelis to circumcise their sons,” he told me. “That is exactly why 99% of Israelis do it.”
Paradoxically, Goodman said, because America “stripped” religion from politics, politicians can be religious in public. “But in Israel, where we connect politics to religion, politicians cannot be publicly religious.”
That is why a growing number of Israelis, he said, prefer today to get married outside of Israel, in places like Cyprus, just to avoid having the rabbinate involved.
“Once you legislate something, people don’t want it,” he said. “Strangely, if they weren’t being forced to be married by the rabbinate, more people in Israel would be marrying according to Jewish law.”
I thought of this during a visit last weekend to South Africa where I attended Sinai Indaba, a massive annual Jewish conference. The brainchild of South Africa’s visionary Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, Sinai Indaba brings over 5,000 Jews, approximately a 10th of the country’s Jewish community, together for a day of lectures, music and mingling.
Israel has something to learn from South Africa’s Jewish community. There, people drive on Shabbat but are welcomed at Orthodox synagogues. There, the synagogue might be called “Chabad” but besides for the rabbi no one is part of the hassidic group. People are not labeled based on the kippa they wear; they are not cataloged based on the school they go to; and they are not categorized by the kashrut of their home.
Tolerance is felt in the air. Acceptance is the theme of the community. Sectarianism, too often felt within Israel, simply does not exist.
The current Israeli government is an example of how politics can hijack religion. When the cabinet in January 2016 voted to establish a third prayer plaza at the Western Wall, the haredi parties were well aware of the compromise and what it entailed. They were not happy but acquiesced per Netanyahu’s personal request.
Only after the vote, when the haredi street heard about the plan and protested, did their politicians come under pressure. They threatened to topple Netanyahu’s government and as a result 14 months have passed and the plan – remember, it was approved by the cabinet – is still stuck and progressive Jews from around the world do not yet have a place to pray at Judaism’s holy site.
The same applies to the approximately 400,000 Israelis who cannot get married in the country. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union, these people received citizenship under the Law of Return but are not considered Jewish according to Halacha and therefore cannot be married, since marriage has to be conducted through the Chief Rabbinate.
People who moved to the country, received citizenship, served in the IDF, got jobs and pay taxes, are denied a basic democratic right – the ability to marry. Why? Because of the mix of religion and politics.
Israel can change this situation. It is time to realize that a chief rabbinate is not what is needed to retain the state’s Jewish character. While more can be done, Judaism is already felt everywhere in Israel without the rabbinate: Hebrew is the spoken language, the Bible is taught in schools and Jewish holidays are national vacations.
Politics need to be stripped of religion. When that happens, people will be able to enjoy the basic rights every democracy is meant to provide its citizens – the ability to marry and pray, and it will also make the thousands of years of heritage, customs and laws Judaism has to offer far more appealing.
There will be one other benefit – the prime minister might not be afraid to publicly bless his country.