Bet ween pork and Puritanism

Guy Ben-Porat explains why there has been no overwhelming cry for the secularization of the state.

Guy Ben-Porat 521 (photo credit: Dani Machlis)
Guy Ben-Porat 521
(photo credit: Dani Machlis)
In 2005, while I was working on a story about the introduction of cremation as a burial method in Israel, Muki Tsur, historian of the kibbutz movement and member of Kibbutz Ein Gev, pointed out to me that “the kibbutz movement’s revolutionary spirit had its limits.”
Raise pigs and eat pork? Sure. Light bonfires and feast on Yom Kippur? No problem. Heck, the kibbutz movement even attempted to dismantle the traditional family structure by separating children from their parents shortly after birth. In recent decades, they spearheaded alternative burial ceremonies that permitted the use of coffins and allowed mourners to incorporate non-religious texts in the burial service. But cremation? No way.
Tsur called self-imposed limits such as the ingrained taboo against cremation “the dialectics of revolution.” As Tsur notes, “leaders of the kibbutz movement had a constant fear that their social experiments would spiral out of control and become nihilistic.”
And this deference to Jewish tradition remains a fixture of Israeli society to this day. This is one of the central conclusions reached by Guy Ben-Porat of Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Public Policy and Administration in his new book Between State and Synagogue: The Secularization of Contemporary Israel.
The influx of over a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union – most of whom are secular and about a third of whom non-Jewish – has not fundamentally changed the underlying Zionist ethos accepted by the majority of Jewish Israelis, which acknowledges the primacy of Orthodox Judaism. But where various secular revolutions have either failed or consciously refrained from dismantling the ties between state and Judaism, market forces have, in a limited way, succeeded.
Since the 1980s, when a capitalist consumer culture began to develop in Israel after years of quasi-socialist statism, certain segments of the population have managed to carve out for themselves what Ben-Porat refers to as “secular spaces.”
Influenced by Americanization and globalization forces, and motivated by personal tastes and desires – not ideology – a growing number of Israelis wanted the freedom to shop on Shabbat. Large malls like the one on Kibbutz Shefayim happily accommodated. Immigrants from the FSU brought with them their own tastes and preferences – including a demand for non-kosher food products. Proudly treyf supermarkets like Tiv Ta’am stepped in to meet the need. Non-Jewish FSU immigrants had to find practical solutions in a Jewish state that did not permit civil marriage. Travel agencies put together “vacation packages” to Cyprus and other locations that included a posh hotel and a marriage ceremony. In Israel’s burgeoning consumer culture, there was even a demand for cremation. Aley Shalechet [Autumn Leaves] Funeral Home fired up its B&L Cremation System N20 series crematorium.
Ben-Porat notes how these “secular entrepreneurs” might have been motivated by an ideology, but they were also out to make a buck.
Ironically, the success that market forces have had in carving out these “secular spaces” actually served to perpetuate the Orthodox monopoly on religious services. If the market could provide Israeli citizens with shrimp and pork, shopping on Shabbat, civil marriages in Cyprus or common law marriages, and alternative burial ceremonies, the pressure would decrease for radical reform such as the separation of religion and state.
I asked Ben-Porat a few questions to help flesh out some of the issues he touched on in his book: One of the conclusions of your book is that secular liberal ideology as a political force is practically nonexistent in Israel. Secular Jewish Israelis who shop on Shabbat, partake of non-kosher food, choose non-traditional burials or engage in some other way in secular activities do not necessarily want to see a major revolution take place. The million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, most of whom are secular and many of whom are non-Jews, preferred practical solutions and loopholes to major reforms obtained via political activism.
What does this conclusion say about the chances for, say, separating religion from state, or the dismantling of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel? The non-separation of church and state is not simply the result of haredi political power. Secular Israelis’ ambivalence to Judaism combined with the central role that Judaism plays in maintaining state and national boundaries are also critical for understanding why religion and state are so strongly tied together.
For instance, Zionism’s territorial claim on the “Promised Land” cannot easily be dissociated from religion; Israeli culture and language are imbued with religious symbols and connotations; citizenship distinctions such as the “Who is a Jew?” question rely on religious definitions. As a result, very few Jewish Israelis are willing to compromise the privileges of the Jewish state.
The dismantling of the Chief Rabbinate is hardly likely, though not impossible. Most Israelis still prefer the Orthodox ceremonies. Religious reform like the one envisioned by the Modern Orthodox Tzohar organization is possible. But Tzohar’s proposals fall way short of a revolution.
Can market forces continue to play a role in carving out additional secular spaces, or has this process run its course? Market forces can continue to carve niches and create “secular spaces” within society. But they will encounter the opposite trends of religious revival.
You mention in your book the rise of Gush Emunim and Shas as major political forces. What other sorts of opposite trends that use the market to increase religiosity are you talking about? Market forces do not only strengthen secularism – they can also work on behalf of religion. They do so in many places around the world, where religion is able to market its rituals and practices in different shapes or forms. Religious groups use modern communication technology to expand the reach of their messages, and they do so in our global world where it is easier to reach out to people in search of identity and meaning.
In Israel, haredi groups take advantage of the markets and the consumer culture to organize effectively and pressure secular entrepreneurs to stay in line. This works better with large food chains, to a lesser extent with restaurants and even less with specialty shops, where the relatively poor haredi consumers are less important than the secular ones.
Another example would be “celebrity rabbis” who perform marriages and are very popular, and another one would be a whole “industry” of miracle workers or spiritual guides who lead pilgrimages to graves, etc.
You talk in your book of the ambivalence of Israelis vis-à-vis Judaism on one hand, combined on the other hand with the central role that (Orthodox) Judaism plays in Israeli society – as a legitimizer of Israelis’ territorial claims, as a unifier of Israel’s citizens (at least among those Israeli citizens defined as Jewish), and as a force that imbues our language and culture with religious symbols and meaning.
Why do you think the majority of Jewish Israelis are unwilling to back real reforms such as, for instance, the dismantling of the Chief Rabbinate or the institution of civil marriage? Do they see such moves as somehow forfeiting Jews’ special privileges in the Jewish state? Or is it that they simply don’t care that much either way and since they are not willing to fight for change, the status quo remains in place out of inertia? I think there is a combination of reasons that explain apathy and inertia. First, there is in Israel a general political culture of cynicism that is skeptical regarding the possibility of change. Second, most Israelis still rely on Orthodoxy and are content with having the establishment serve as guardian of national boundaries and symbols.
Third, Israelis suffer from ignorance and unfamiliarity with Jewish alternatives. Fourth, unlike Jews in the US for whom questions of belonging are existential and assimilation is a scary reality, for Israelis the question of Jewish belonging is less a source of worry as far as their children’s future is concerned. Chances are they will marry a Jew and remain Jewish. Fifth, and most importantly, for Israelis who want to avoid the rabbinate, the alternatives I describe in my book provide an outlet that does not require a struggle or major reforms.
The forces you describe that successfully carved out secular spaces are essentially capitalist in nature. They are the result of relatively free market forces: consumer demands on one hand and secular entrepreneurs supplying the goods and services on the other. But isn’t it also true that the fear that neoliberal capitalist forces would strengthen post-Zionism has turned out to be unfounded, and that the underlying Zionist ethos has proven to be remarkably resilient? This belongs to a somewhat different debate but, nevertheless, one can be neoliberal capitalist and a devoted national patriot, in Israel and elsewhere. But, yes, the Zionist ethos has proven very strong since most sides are committed to the idea of a Jewish state, so that an odd “marriage” between [Yesh Atid leader] Yair Lapid and [Bayit Yehudi leader] Naftali Bennett is possible. So, I think secularization has little to do with the ideological post-Zionism.
Could you please expand a little on what, in your opinion, enabled what you call “the odd marriage” between Bennett and Lapid? What enables the marriage of the two is the agreement on the idea of the Jewish state and the privileges it provides to Jewish Israelis.
Also, the two share a common “enemy” in the haredim. Finally, they both aim for a Jewish consensus. Thus, in practice they can cooperate to reform the rabbinate, by attempting to wrest it away from haredi control, by providing better service and by offering a small measure of flexibility and openness. But both are interested in leaving the overall institutional framework intact.