2020 Annual Assessment

A foundational project on religion-state relations in Israel is currently underway at the Jewish People Policy Institute. The goal of the project: to define and propose an improved outlook, model, and boundary lines for managing the interface of religion-state relations in Israel. The project specifically addresses a number of issues critical to the behavior of this interface, and explores the connections and tradeoffs between the relevant issues.

The project is headed by former Chief Justice Miriam Naor, a member of JPPI’s Professional Guiding Council, and Brigadier General (res.) Michael Herzog with the participation of Dr. Inbal Hakman and Dr. Shlomo Fischer.

Background


The State of Israel was conceived and established by its founders as a Jewish and democratic state. This definition encompasses both the state’s Jewish character – as reflected in nationality, religion, and culture – and the fact that it upholds the principle of civil equality for all its citizens regardless of religion, race or gender. In the 1990s, Israel, which lacks a formal constitution, enshrined fundamental civil rights in two Basic Laws: Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation, and Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. In 2019, additional legislation was passed that addresses Israel’s national identity: Basic Law: Israel – The Nation-State of the Jewish People.

From the earliest years of Israeli statehood, there has been an inherent potential tension both between and within the two sides of the Jewish-democratic equation. Within Israel, there is internal tension between the Jewish majority and the non-Jewish minority, as well as between the different streams of Judaism. Beyond the state’s borders, tension exists – and has grown in recent years – in the sphere of Israel-Diaspora relations (regarding such major issues as conversion and the state’s attitude toward the non-Orthodox streams, as illustrated by the ongoing saga of the “Kotel compromise”). These tensions highlight the dilemma of how religion, nationality, and culture are apportioned within the concept of “Jewishness;” more specifically within the religion component, the status of the non-Orthodox streams is a matter of concern. Another (and somewhat related) question is that of the balance Israel needs to strike between its “Jewish” and its “democratic” elements. The aforementioned issues are nationally, ethically/ideologically, religiously, and politically loaded in Israel, while in both Israel and the Diaspora they are perennial subjects of debate and central to the current discourse on Israel-Diaspora relations.

For years, efforts have been made in governmental and civil-society frameworks to address this tension and find ways of mitigating it. But in several spheres the tension has grown over time, for political, demographic, and other reasons.

The project


At the heart of the project lies the question of what kind of balance is desirable, and possible, between Israel as a “Jewish state” and Israel as a “democratic state.” And relatedly: How can this balance be translated into everyday life in Israel? The assumption underlying these questions is that the unique character defining Israel’s identity as a nation, and the centrality of Judaism within that unique national character, representing a civilization of many different and interrelated elements, do not allow the tensions to be mitigated via separation of religion and state, as is the case in several Western countries, most notably the United States. We must, therefore, seek the optimal means of fostering harmonious coexistence between the State of Israel and Judaism, with an emphasis on the religious element of the latter – itself a main source of social tension. Other central premises are that Israel, mainly due to domestic political pressures, has yet to identify the best way of striking such a balance; and that it must and can meet the challenge more effectively.

Much has been written about the desired religion-state balance. Israeli civil-society organizations have drawn up various “covenants” aimed at achieving such a balance (e.g., the Gavison-Medan Covenant, the Kinneret Convention, the Meimad-Lubotzky-Beilin Covenant). Many Supreme Court rulings have pertained to this balance. JPPI has also addressed the subject from a number of angles. Nevertheless, the Institute decided to take the issue up again, due to its great importance for Israel itself and for its relations with Diaspora Jewry, and out of concern over the directions in which it could potentially develop. The unique tools at JPPI’s disposal (a deep knowledge base, experience, and a wide-ranging network of contacts in Israel and the Diaspora) allow it to treat the topic with the seriousness it deserves. Former Chief Justice Miriam Naor, who heads the project, dealt extensively with the issue while serving on Israel’s Supreme Court.

The project aims to deal with both the forest and the trees. First it looks at the basic questions behind the Jewish-democratic tension, laying a conceptual foundation for discussion, and from there it proceeds to address a number of core issues in which the religion-state tension manifests itself. These include:

  1. Conversion
  2. Marriage and divorce
  3. Shabbat and the public sphere
  4. Education
  5. Military/national/civilian service
  6. Kashrut

The state’s attitude toward the non-Orthodox streams generally, and with regard to these issues in particular.

The main questions addressed by the project:

  1. The basic approach to defining religion and state relations in Israel.
  2. What are the minimal criteria for Israel as a Jewish state/state for the Jewish people, beyond which all citizens and communities can behave as they please? When defining the term “Jewish,” what weight should be assigned to the elements of religion, nationality, and culture, and to the relations between them?
  3. How should the gateway to the Jewish people, and its relation to the gateway to the State of Israel, be defined?
  4. To what degree, if any, should the state provide religious services to citizens? Should these services be privatized and if so, to what degree, and how?
  5. Where should the balancing line be drawn on each of these core issues?
  6. What potential tradeoffs between these issues could prove helpful in reaching a comprehensive resolution for them?
  7. What should the Chief Rabbinate’s status and powers be in such a resolution?
  8. How should the proposed solutions for achieving the desired balance be anchored or regulated – by legislation? Administrative decisions? Judicial oversight? Some other means?
  9. What would be the optimal mechanism for addressing these issues in Israel, and for handling Israel’s relations with the Diaspora communities?
  10. How might Israeli decision-making on issues of religion and state be improved, so as to ensure greater reliance (to the extent possible) on comprehensive strategic thinking, rather than political pressure?

JPPI aims to define the balance, not just between religion and state, but also between the desirable and the possible in this context. Accordingly, it will take into account the constraints of Israeli public and political realities, and seek solutions that, rather than merely embodying inclinations or theoretical positions, actually have a chance of being realized.

Our impression at this stage of the project, now that a large number of interviews have been conducted, is that Israel’s rich social mosaic, and the Jewish religion itself, provide enough maneuvering space and flexibility for the tensions to be defused. Progress, however, is thwarted by political pressures, which set the tone in decision-making on religion-and-state issues at the national level. One of the project’s main goals is, therefore, to delineate this maneuvering space and seek ways of putting it to use.

Methodology:

  1. Collect and study data from different sources, including governmental sources.
  2. Define guidelines, principles, and criteria for formulating positions on the core issues.
  3. In-depth conversations and interviews, based on focus questions that relate to each of the core issues, with prominent figures from the myriad sectors, streams and approaches (representing the religious streams from Haredi to Reform, the government, alternative organizations such as Tzohar, intellectuals, and more), to promote familiarity with a broad array of opinions and rationales.
  4. Based on these interviews and the principles formulated by the project team, we will draw conclusions and write the project report. The report will include analysis and policy recommendations, as well as a proposed mechanism for promoting and implementing the recommendations.
  5. Before the report and the recommendations are published, the project heads will hold meetings with relevant figures from the government and Diaspora Jewry to discuss the conclusions and recommendations and their likelihood of being implemented.
  6. JPPI intends to complete its work on the project by the end of 2020, and to present it to the Israeli government and other public entities in Israel and the Diaspora that are engaged with this topic.
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