Jews and non-Jews alike, all lovers of Israel, are asking me to explain Israel’s marriage of religion and politics. For anyone who is not an Israeli, this confluence stymies and mystifies them. They are so flummoxed that it even takes them a few minutes to listen carefully and understand my rephrasing of their question.
I begin by explaining that in Israel, unlike in the US, the issue is not “church and state” – in Israel, it is “religion and state”. Yes, church is a metaphor for religion, but that simply cannot work in Israel, i.e. the Jewish state. Clearly, the swapping of the word synagogue for church is doable but synagogue and state neither resonates, nor does it have the same meaning.
And that, most significantly, is because in Israel, Judaism is more than a building or a property. In Israel, Judaism is more than prayer. In Israel, Judaism is even more than God. In Israel, Judaism is the pervading culture.
In Israel, Judaism imbues almost every activity, almost every walk of life; everything – from the calendar to the names of the days of the week, from family vacations to school holidays, from the food that is eaten, to the music that is played, the poetry that is read and the language that is spoken.
In Israel, Judaism is the epicenter upon which all else revolves.
There is no way of offering a greeting or departing wish on Friday night or Saturday other than saying, in Hebrew, have a pleasant Sabbath, a “Shabbat Shalom.” The very name of the state, Israel, and the choice of locating the Jewish state in its ancestral home is in itself a combination of Judaism and politics.
In Israel, Judaism and politics, are inseparable – one cannot be divorced from the other. And that’s why, when you stop and think about it, it only makes sense that, in Israel, there will be religious political parties.
And it only makes sense that those parties will want to imbue more Jewish content into their schools, into their lives and into Israeli culture. And in the same way, it only makes sense that secular Jews will say “enough already.”
And that explains the tension between Israeli politics and Judaism, between those who want more of one and those who want more of the other. Note that it is “more of one or none of the other” not the elimination of one (Judaism) over the other (politics). Statistically, no Jew in Israel wants the total removal of all Jewish character from Israel. (But that’s another column, on the protection of minority rights, for another time.)
The tension that has captured the world’s attention is not new, it is just more intense. Over the past almost 50 years, since the election of Menachem Begin in 1977, Israel has undergone a steady move from the political left to the political right. That move has meant that political parties and their leaders became much warmer toward Jewish values.
TODAY, THE vast majority of Israelis line up center-Right. The extreme Left has imploded. The moderate Left has virtually no following. And the Right, while the stronger presence, is not, despite world news coverage of Israel’s new government, one big, united bloc.
Israel’s religious right wing is not, in reality, all blended into one conglomerate. They are different parties – each with its own unique characteristics – joined together as part of the Netanyahu government, with three very different political platforms and representations.
While Religious Zionists, like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, are fervently religious, their political emphasis is on nationalism and settlement. That puts them in fierce conflict with United Torah Judaism (UTJ), the Ashkenazi haredi parties. And Shas represents the Jews of Arab lands.
Each group has its own agenda and will fight to get allocations for their constituents. Mostly, they want money for schools and housing.
In the United States, the separation of church and state is protected by the US Constitution. In Europe, rabbis are paid by the state. In Europe, the official rabbis are employees of the state as is their entire office from assistants to secretaries.
The establishment clause in the US Constitution is totally irrelevant in a Jewish state because, by definition, the establishment of the Jewish state would violate the Establishment Clause.
The First Amendment has two important elements pertaining to religion. Establishment and free exercise: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
While Israel embraced Judaism, America’s founders were running away from religious persecution and from places where governments created religious laws in government. Maryland had Catholic laws incorporated into their system. New Jersey and Pennsylvania rejected that and created non-establishment clauses.
Most people are left surprised by my explanation. Surprised to learn that Israel is still a laboratory when it comes to religion and state. Overall, the experiment forces important discussions and valuable dialogue about the content and quality of life in a state run by Jews.
A state that will continue to survive and flourish not despite, but because of the disputes among those who fervently love and want only the best for their country.
The writer is a social and political commentator. Watch his TV show Thinking Out Loud on JBS.