Gabriel Abensour


From the personal to the national

Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. This is a legal fact anchored in Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation and Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, and rooted in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Incidentally, on the sociocultural level different approaches and interpretations exist regarding the “Jewish” and “democratic” elements that establish the state’s character, and regarding the balance that should be struck between them. Is Judaism conceived of as a culture, a nationality, or a religion? The Supreme Court, under former Chief Justice Aharon Barak, ruled that the term “Jewish state” encompasses several minimum components: the right of any Jew to immigrate to Israel and for Jews to constitute a majority there; Hebrew as the state’s main official language; holidays and symbols reflecting the Jewish people’s national rebirth; Jewish heritage as a central element of the nation’s religious and cultural19 heritage. This question is not solely national; it also relates to the Israeli citizen’s personal self-definition and to the balance between the various components of his identity: the religious, the national, the ethnic, and the civic.

Of all the various identity components, the fact of being Jewish is emphasized as the dominant one by 43% of Masortim. Twenty-three percent emphasize the Israeli component, 20% their way of life as Masortim, and only 9% their ethnicity.20 What is the “Jewish identity” with which the Masortim identify? For the vast majority of them (87%), it is not an exclusively religious or national identity. These Masortim agree with the statement: “For me Judaism is much more than observing the religious commandments, it’s being part of a large group of people with common roots and a common history.”21 Not only do Masortim not see Judaism solely as mitzvah observance, but they do not regard strict adherence to Halacha as necessary in order to be considered as living in accordance with Jewish values. Thus, 93% of Masortim perceive their way of life as being in accord with Jewish values.22

The Masortim do not regard their Jewishness as being based solely on a religious component, but on the national level they actually oppose the state’s “Jewish” definition being religion-based. Fifty-five percent of Masortim understand Israel’s Jewishness to be based on a national component, while fewer than a third emphasize the religious element; support for the nationality component over the religious component is greater among the Masorti-not-religious (57% versus 27%). Furthermore, the share of Masortim who interpret the state’s Jewishness as being based on an element of democracy and tolerance is similar to the share of secular Jews who hold this view (12%). This is in contrast to the 52% of Dati Jews and 85% of Haredi Jews who emphasize the religious component.23

The character of the State of Israel

Of all the different sectors in Israel, the Masorti sector is the one that most strongly supports parity between state’s Jewish and democratic components. A majority of Masortim affirm the equal importance of both components, with the share rising to 58% among the Masorti-not-religious public. This is in contrast to the greater importance accorded to the Jewish component by Datiim (61%) and Haredim (68%); while the secular are divided between the 40% who give greater weight to the democratic component and the 48% who seek a balance.24 Not only do the Masortim believe that the two components are equally important, they are also the group that most strongly believes (80%) that Israel can maintain a balance between them and exist in the long term as a Jewish and democratic state.25 Furthermore, on the question “Which component would you most want to strengthen?” the Masortim are the only group that declares its desire to strengthen Israel as a Jewish and democratic state (59% of Masorti-religious and 56% of Masorti-not-religious); this is in contrast to Haredim (84%) and Datiim (57%) who would like to reinforce the state’s Jewish character only, and the secular (63%), who would like to strengthen the democratic component only.26

However, regarding the question of whether a balance between the components currently exists, the Masortim are markedly divided. Nearly a third (28%) believe that there is an adequate balance, but 30% of the Masorti-not-religious think that the Jewish component is too strong, while 35.5% of the Masorti-religious think that the democratic component is too strong. When the Masorti-religious and the Masorti-not-religious are combined, we find near-parity between the opinion that a better balance should be struck – the opinion that the Jewish component is too strong, and the opinion that the democratic component is too strong. This is in contrast to all the other sectors, where there is always a majority favoring one of the positions (63% of the secular think the Jewish component is too strong; 67% of Datiim and Haredim think the democratic component is too strong).27 This is an important point, as it once again underscores the Masorti public’s fundamental heterogeneity, which contrasts with the rest of Israel’s Jewish subgroups. The Masorti public believes in a Jewish and democratic Israel on a declarative-ideological level but experiences the actual implementation quite differently.

We have seen that the Masortim believe in the equal importance of the Jewish and democratic components. The components, however, sometimes unavoidably clash, making it necessary to decide between them. In such cases, the Masortim are the only non-secular group to declare in significant numbers that the state’s democratic principles outweigh religious law (56%, versus 23%).28 Accordingly, in instances where Halacha conflicts with Supreme Court rulings, only 26% of the Masortim think that Halacha takes precedence, compared with 70% of the Datiim and 96% of the Haredim.29 Likewise, only 32% of the Masortim would favor Halacha becoming the law of the land, as opposed to 69% of the Datiim and 86% of the Haredim.30 Thus, one may indeed say that the Masorti public differs from the Dati and the Haredi publics regarding the desired character of Israel’s political system, and holds views closer to those of the secular.

Separation of religion and politics

Thus far we have seen that the Masortim believe in Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state and wish to strengthen that character, while also defining Judaism as something more than the observance of religious commandments. Now we shall see that the Masortim, on principle, oppose any mixing of religion and state, or of religion and politics. They support Israel as a Jewish state but not as a religious state. Regarding the theoretical issue of whether separation between religion and state is desirable – when what is intended is the separation of religion but not of Judaism as a nationality – the rate of support among all Masortim reaches 40%, and approaches 50% among the non-religious Masortim.31

Similarly, the Masortim tend to oppose rabbinical intervention in public and security affairs. When Avigdor Lieberman attacked Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and Shlomo Aviner for their statements against women’s military conscription, 63% of Masortim, including 75% of the Masorti-not-so-religious, supported him.32 On whether a religious soldier should obey his rabbis or a military order, less than 5% of Masortim answered that he should obey the rabbis, in contrast to 26% of the Datiim and 73% of the Haredim.33 Also, 63% of Masortim state that rabbinical opinion is not an important factor in the formulation of their personal views on political issues (and only 11% say it is highly important, in contrast to 30% of the Datiim and 82% of the Haredim).34 In another survey, just 27% of Masortim attached great or fairly great importance to rabbinical rulings on controversial political topics.35