An Israeli irony: Status quo erodes as haredi political power increases

Israel's dilemma of reconciling religion and state has been ongoing since the country was founded.

THE RABBINCAL Court of Tel Aviv
On June 19, 1947, just as the UN Special Committee on Palestine began a fact-finding tour to come up with recommendations concerning “the future government of Palestine,” Zionist Executive (Jewish Agency) head David Ben-Gurion – keen on presenting a unified Jewish position to the committee – sent a letter to the haredi Agudath Israel World Organization.
In that letter, Ben-Gurion – trying to assuage concern that the future state would be a secular one with no special standing for Judaism or religious institutions – spelled out basic principles that would guide religion-state relations in Israel for years to come. He addressed four areas of concern: Shabbat, kashrut, marital status and education.
Regarding Shabbat, Ben-Gurion wrote that “it is clear that the legal day of rest in the Jewish state will be Saturday,” though “obviously” members of other faiths will be able to rest on their weekly holiday. As far as kashrut was concerned, the letter declared that “every state kitchen intended for Jews will have kosher food.”
When it came to marital status, Ben-Gurion wrote that “the serious nature of the problem and the great difficulties involved” are recognized, and that the Zionist Executive “will do all that can be done to satisfy the needs of the religiously observant in this matter and to prevent a rift in the Jewish people.”
And as for education, the letter set the foundations for “full autonomy of every stream in education,” so that each stream can “conduct education according to its conscience,” though the state will determine minimum obligatory studies in “Hebrew language, history, science and the like.”
That letter, in a country that lacks a constitution, is one of the seminal documents governing the relationship between religion and state. With this document, the famous and much-maligned religious status quo was born.
Shuki Friedman, the director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute, said that “everyone uses the term ‘status quo.’ In every coalition agreement from the beginning of the state, it is written that the status quo will be preserved, without saying what it is or what that means. And that situation is comfortable for everyone.”
The Ben-Gurion letter, Friedman pointed out, was very short on details.
For instance, Friedman said, all that was written about Shabbat is that it should be a day of rest, but it doesn’t go on to say what exactly that means – what is to be open, and what is to be closed, whether public transportation should run or not. Regarding kashrut as well, the letter stipulated that public kitchens need to be kosher – a reference to the army and hospitals – but it said nothing about issues that have become so controversial in recent years, such as kashrut supervision in restaurants.
The most detailed part of that letter, Friedman said, had to do with marital issues, with Ben-Gurion’s acknowledgment that the country should not be torn into different parts seen as giving the green light for the eventual monopoly of the rabbinate over issues of marriage and divorce.
But that’s it; there is not much more to that letter. Since then, Friedman noted, “things have been added on chaotically.”
The status quo, he said, is a hodgepodge of laws and informal arrangements that were added over time, some through legislation, others through municipal bylaws.
IRONICALLY, EVEN as many bewail religious coercion in the country and the monopoly of the Orthodox establishment, there has been a constant erosion of the status quo over the last number of years.
If there were pitched battles in the 1980s over movie theaters opening in Jerusalem or Petah Tikva on Shabbat, now it is no longer an issue. Things that were thought to be inconceivable 40 years ago – open coffee shops in Jerusalem on Shabbat or malls around the country welcoming customers on the day of rest – are now commonplace.
“The status quo has changed practically on the ground, and there are numerous forces that brought this about,” Friedman said.
The first factor has been rulings by the High Court of Justice, the second is market forces, and the third has been initiatives taken by local municipalities, as well as their refusal to enforce some of their own bylaws.
In an article Friedman wrote on the matter at the end of the last decade, an article that he said is very much still relevant, he pointed out that while formally “the old status quo remains unchanged and has been maintained in the coalition agreements of the various governments,” in practice “there have been changes in almost all the significant aspects of this relationship, and the status quo seems less relevant than ever.”
Take Shabbat, for instance. “Over the last decade, the scale of commercial activity on Shabbat has expanded considerably,” he wrote. “In addition to out-of-town shopping centers, we have seen supermarkets, stores and even malls opening in town centers, despite this being explicitly forbidden by municipal bylaws. Many municipalities have simply chosen not to enforce the law.”
Friedman said that there has also been a significant change in the kashrut market, with the Chief Rabbinate no longer having a monopoly over kashrut certification – a situation that changed as a result of market forces and High Court rulings.
In the area of marriage and divorce, Friedman wrote, there has been little change, and “any Israeli wishing to get married in Israel, even if he or she is a profound atheist, can only do so via a religious ceremony, and any Israeli seeking a divorce must come before judges who function according to manifestly non-egalitarian religious laws.”
At the same time, he acknowledged in an interview, there are now laws on the books that dictate what the division of property in divorce settlements need to look like. Likewise, while there are no nonreligious weddings in Israel, couples who opt to live together as common-law couples enjoy rights almost identical to those of couples whose marriages are registered by the Chief Rabbinate.
A CROWDED CAFE in Tel Aviv on Shabbat. (Avshalom Shoshani)A CROWDED CAFE in Tel Aviv on Shabbat. (Avshalom Shoshani)
WHAT IS most ironic about the changes in the status quo is that they have come about even though the haredi parties have been in almost every government since 1977.
Friedman said that the reason for this is that although the haredi parties pay lip service to the preservation of the status quo, this issue has never been one of their top priorities.
“With their political capital, their first priority and concern is the budget, to maintain the world of Torah: religious life, funding for yeshivot and kollelim, without which the haredi community can’t exist.”
Eli Paley, the publisher of the haredi Mishpacha magazine and chairman of the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs, put it a bit differently, though he, too, agrees that there has been an erosion in the status quo, an erosion that at least in some areas – such as Shabbat – he termed “dramatic.”
Paley attributed this erosion to a phalanx of groups and organizations that have made a fight against “religious coercion” their key priority and have succeeded in putting the issue high up on the public agenda, and also to the fact that preserving the status quo has never been the top priority for haredi parties.
“They gave up on this front from the very beginning,” Paley said. “You have to ask yourselves to what extent are the haredi representatives really bothered by businesses open on Shabbat. I would say not that much. If there is work on train infrastructure on Shabbat, that embarrasses them because they are part of a government that allows it. But even there, if you push them into the corner, it is not that high up on their agenda.”
The main reason, he said, is “because there are other issues that they see as more pressing and important. You need to remember that when it comes to religion-state issues among haredim, as opposed to religious Zionists, it is not that important for the state to be run according to religion. They don’t see the state as part of their religious values; rather, they see the state as something where they can play in the democratic game. Religious Zionists, on the other hand, have this vision of a state with a Jewish character. The haredi approach is ‘Give me Yavne and its sages,’ or how are we able to preserve what is important to us.”
According to Paley, while religious Zionists attribute a religious value to the state, the haredim do not, and consequently the religious character of the state is secondary to what is most important to them: preserving the world of Torah and enabling them to live their life as they see fit.
“The dream of the haredim is not a halachic state; that is not on their agenda,” he said.
“This does not mean that the haredim are not worried about what is happening in the country. Surely they would be happier if things looked different, and there are things here that are painful for them to see – but this is not what they will fight for.”
For instance, Paley said, if it’s a choice of fighting to preserve Torah institutions or for the public character of Shabbat, they will choose the former.
If that’s the case, then why do the haredi parties go to battle over so many issues that have nothing to do with preserving yeshivot and kollelim? he was asked.
“Because they can’t agree to something that contradicts their value system,” he said. For instance, Paley said the haredi parties could not agree to a political compromise and formal agreement that would mandate budgets for yeshivot in exchange for a haredi agreement to public transportation on Shabbat.
When there is a conflict between Jewish law and a political compromise, they will not be able to compromise – and for that reason, they do not want to see formal agreements.
Which, Paley said, was the beauty of the status quo – it was informal, vague, amorphous – it wasn’t something written in stone or legislated.
The problem from the haredi perspective, he said, is that the High Court – in an attempt to regulate matters – has come along in recent years and issued rulings on religious issues that do make things formal. And this has led to erosion of the status quo, creating one of the country’s greatest contradictions: an erosion of the status quo at a time when haredi parties held significant political power.