Religion & State in Israel
The battle for religious freedom in Israel is one that I have been seeped in professionally for nearly seven years now; and it’s one that I follow very closely. You might say that it’s become something of an area of expertise for me.
That said, I hope to keep this blog post as simple as possible for the sakes of all my readers around the world who know very little about life in Israel. And, as always, I am happy to offer clarifications and more extended commentary, should you be curious to know more.
It’s important to understand that Israel is mired in two existential tensions, but only one of them gets much press abroad. The first is the so-called the Arab-Israeli conflict. The second is the political war over religious freedom between proponents of democracy and those who strive to turn Israel into a theocratic Jewish state.
Indeed, Israeli’s politics of religion & state are always heated, but ~ the prospective “change government” set to be voted upon and hopefully installed next week marks a somewhat dramatic shift in this arena.
Seriously: there is no civil marriage in Israel.
Only religious weddings conducted within the borders of the State of Israel may be registered with the government. Those Israelis who wish to have civil weddings must go abroad to other countries (such as Cyprus) to get married – because Israel is obligated by international agreements to respect marriages that are legally binding in other countries.
This means: every religious group recognized by the State has an official religious authority, and only representatives of those religious authorities may perform weddings. For Jews, who comprise ~75% of the population, the official religious authority is the Chief Rabbinate. Jewish citizens may only get married in Israel if the Chief Rabbinate approves of their marriages, and there are plenty of reasons why it might not.
And it’s not only Jewish marriage that the Chief Rabbinate has a legal monopoly over. It’s also Jewish burial, the certification of food establishments and hotels as kosher, divorce… Oh, and did I mention that public transportation is unavailable throughout most Israel on the Sabbath? If you can’t afford a car, that’s your problem.
So why is this the case?
There are undisputed historic reasons for the Chief Rabbinate’s authority, going all the way back to the Ottoman Empire’s millet system, which the nascent State of Israel adopted in order to appease the ultra-Orthodox community. When Israel was founded in 1948, most non-Orthodox Jews viewed Orthodoxy as the most authentic version of religious Judaism; and, for the most part, secular Jews had no problem ceding the realm of religious life to the Chief Rabbinate. “Sure,” they grinned, “we’ll get married according to your quaint religious standards.”
The problem, over the decades, became that Israel’s Jewish community was growing increasingly diverse. For example, there were more and more Jewish citizens who were not considered Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate because their mothers were not Jewish. These citizens paid their taxes and served in the armed forces but couldn’t legally get married in their home country. Also, there were LGBTQ couples, interfaith couples, couples who affiliated with non-Orthodox religious denominations of Judaism… and the list goes on.
In part, therefore, despite the many demographic and social changes, the reason for the Chief Rabbinate’s continued hold over religious life in Israel has to do with inertia. However, that’s far from the whole story.
The rest of the story is mostly political. In Israel, there are political parties that ostensibly represent the interests of their respective religious communities. There is now more than one political party to represent Israel’s Zionist Orthodox population; another party representing Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Israelis; and yet another to represent Ashkenazic ultra-Orthodox Israelis (including Hasidic Jews and Litvish Jews).
While these religious parties do not agree upon everything, they do, for the most part, agree that the democratic rights (freedom of religion, anyone?) of Israel’s citizenry should be curtailed for the sake of perpetuating Jewish tradition. And ~ historically, when potential prime ministers (of left, right, and center) have asked the religious parties to join their governing coalitions, they would only do so if those civil governments maintained the Orthodox Rabbinate’s state-enforced monopoly over Jewish life in Israel.
Suffice it to say that forming a majority governing coalition in Israel is no easy feat, and promising away Israelis’ civil liberties has long been a cheap price for prime ministers to pay for reliable political support.
Ripples of change
The prospective Israeli government, which will hopefully be voted upon this coming Sunday, does not include either of Israel’s two ultra-Orthodox political parties, for in recent years, both married themselves to the political fate of Israel’s outgoing prime minister (Benjamin Netanyahu).
Also, of the two political parties that represent the Zionist Orthodox population, the more right-wing and religiously fundamentalist party has refused to join any government that includes any Arab political parties, as the prospective Israeli government does. Only the more religiously moderate Zionist Orthodox political party is included in the prospective government. (The head of this party is slated to be Israel’s next Prime Minister.)
While dramatic changes in Israel’s religion-state arena are not incredibly likely, from my perspective, it’s clear that we will soon be seeing the liberalization of some religious laws and policies, which can only be a good thing. State-recognized civil marriage (a big ticket item) is unlikely to be implemented any time soon, but this incoming government does represent a very positive sea-change…
Also, on a positive final note (for now), In the prospective government, the State’s purse strings via its Finance Ministry and powerful Knesset Finance Committee (which has been controlled by the ultra-Orthodox political parties for many years) will be in the hands of Israel’s secularist Yisrael Beiteinu party, chaired by one Avigdor Liberman. This is very much a step in the right direction.