Israel was established as both a democratic and a Jewish state. Both qualities continue to be real enough. But there have been increasing tensions between these two definitions of the state, and some (in Israel and outside it) have questioned whether there is not an inherent contradiction that cannot be resolved—Israel can be one or the other, but not both.
The question is usually posed in connection with the sizable Arab minority. To be sure, these people are Israeli citizens. They enjoy many of the aspects of the state’s democracy. They vote, they have formed their own political parties, and Arabic is an official language and the vehicle of instruction in a separate school system. Although they suffer from many discriminations, many have come to see the advantages of Israeli citizenship and they show little enthusiasm for exchanging it for citizenship in a putative Palestinian state. Yet the Jewish character of the state is obviously difficult for them to swallow. It inevitably excludes them. They cannot identify with any of its symbols—the army (from which they are exempted), the flag, the anthem, the holidays. The present government has shown little sympathy for their problem. Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, has proposed that Arab citizens should be required to swear an oath of loyalty to Israel. And Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, has insisted that a condition of peace with a Palestinian state should be its formal acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state.
However, there are also severe disagreements within the Jewish population as to the limits of its democracy, specifically between secular and religious Jews.
The secular elite which established the state not only understood its Jewish character as ethnic rather than religious, but wanted to dissociate it from many Jewish traits of the Diaspora. They wanted a robust redefinition of what it means to be a Jew—a new people in a new land. As so often, a joke neatly summarizes this reality: A woman speaks in Yiddish to her little boy on a bus in Tel Aviv. An ardently Zionist fellow-passenger is offended: “You should not speak in Yiddish to your son. Why don’t you speak in Hebrew ?” “Because I don’t want him to forget that he is a Jew”.
The majority of Israeli Jews is still secular, though a pronounced fertility differential is shrinking this edge: the religious have more children. The religious population is not monolithic. Most observe the practices of Orthodox Judaism, but they fully participate in modern Israeli society. The ultra-Orthodox segment, however, called the haredi (from the Hebrew word for “trembling”—presumably before God), makes a lot of noise far beyond its number (about 10% of the total Jewish population).
The Orthodox community as a whole plays a very big role in politics. Israel has an extreme form of proportional representation—very democratic indeed—where every vote counts. The religious parties, though a minority in the Knesset, very commonly hold the balance of power in coalition governments. They use this power very effectively in pushing their own particularistic interests, such as state support of their own schools. They have also succeeded long ago to establish the Orthodox rabbinate’s monopoly in all legal issues pertaining to the personal status of Jews—who cannot be married or divorced outside Orthodox rabbinical jurisdiction (other branches of Judaism are not officially recognized). A significant number of Orthodox rabbis have given vocal support to the settlement movement in the Palestinian territories, bestowing religious legitimacy on a major obstacle to any progress toward peace. Secular Israelis have long been irritated and sometimes incensed by all this, but the political system has given them little chance for challenging it. The Orthodox influence has, understandably, been strongest in Jerusalem, which has become more uncomfortable for the secular. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have come to symbolize the religious/secular dichotomy.
Recently a number of issues have made the dichotomy very visible: a dispute over the opening of a Jerusalem car park on Shabbat; resentment over the interference by social workers in haredi households accused of child abuse; permission granted to the multinational Intel to have work in its factory to continue on Shabbat; the construction of a hospital wing over a plot under which there may be Jewish graves. (This last one is a recurrent issue for archaeological explorations, many of which are designed to dig up the Jewish roots of the country in areas where, of course, some ancient Jews are likely to have been buried.)
In one week last June the Supreme Court of Israel (still a secular stronghold) made two decisions which outraged the haredi community. The first decision took ten years from the original appeal, a sign of the seriousness of the case (Israeli justice is usually faster). The decision ended the preferential treatment of yeshiva students in matters of income support for the less affluent—a significant activity of the Israeli welfare state. The law which established these grants in 1980 excluded students at regular educational institutions so as not to provide unneeded support to the children of upper-income parents. The pressure from the religious parties exempted yeshiva students from this exclusion. One must understand this against an astounding background: 65% of haredi men aged 35 to 54 choose not to work and are supported by the welfare state. The exemption was challenged in court by a single mother studying at a secular institution and very much in need of income support. The court granted her petition on the ground of equality before the law.
Of course there is a venerable tradition honoring full-time study by Jewish men. It was common in eastern Europe for yeshiva students to be desirable marriage prospects. They would then spend every day studying in the synagogue, not accidentally called shul, while their wives ran a small shop to support the family. At least according to the tradition, the wives did not complain (we have no data about those who did), were even proud that they could facilitate the life of a scholar. There is even the story of a Talmud scholar who was asked how God spent eternity. “He studies”, the scholar replied. This has a certain charm. It becomes less charming in a modern state struggling with a soaring welfare budget.
The other case involved a haredi school for girls. The school was run by Ashkenazi Jews (those of east-European origin), but it was also attended by girls from the Sephardic community (whose recent origins are mostly from the Middle East, though they are descended from the Iberian Jews expelled in the 15th century). The school administrators were of the opinion that the Sephardic girls were less pious than the Ashkenazi ones, whom they might infect with their loose ways. For that reason they installed a system of rigorous physical segregation—separate entrances, separate playgrounds—even a wall running through the middle of the school. Some Sephardic parents appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed with their petition and ordered that the physical separation be ended on the ground that this was illegal ethnic discrimination, which could not be defended as an expression of religious freedom. Many Ashkenazi parents then took their daughters out of the school and gave them unlincensed private schooling. This was declared to be contempt of court, not least because some defendants said that rabbinical authority superseded that of the Supreme Court. Thirty-five haredi men were arrested and jailed, provoking huge demonstrations in their support. They were soon released, and at the time of writing some sort of compromise is being worked out.
The Jerusalem Report (incidentally one of the best sources of news and insights from the region) quoted two statements which succinctly express sharply opposing worldviews. One from a haredi spokesman: “The Torah existed long before the State was established, and it is clear that Torah law takes precedence over everything else”. The other from the head of an organization advocating religious freedom (a Reform rabbi, whose form of Judaism is not officially recognized): “The time has come – and it is long overdue – for a genuine battle over the soul of Israel. Mighty forces are challenging the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish and democratic State”. (The Jerusalem Report only makes some of its articles available online. The above quotes come from the July 19, 2010 issue, p. 32.)
The tensions between the secular and the religious in Israel go back a long way, though they seem to have intensified recently, possibly because of the rising number of the Orthodox. But Israel has been a besieged fortress from its inception. One cannot have too many conflicts within the walls of the fortress. If the siege is ever lifted, it is likely that this particular conflict will become very sharp indeed.