Keeping Israel Jewish without Politics

Creating a free market for religion would not only heal internal domestic tension but would also improve Israel’s relationship with the Jewish communities across the Diaspora. Israel is a Jewish state, and to retain that status, it needs to give Jews from around the world a feeling that they can look at Israel as their home.

Israel is often referred to as a country of tribes. There are the Arabs and the Jews but among the Jews are different sectors – the secular, the national-religious, the ultra-nationalist religious and the ultra-Orthodox.

Within this group of Jews exists another subcategory – led by senior lawmakers and politicians – who take pride in their desire to see the state run according to the laws of the Torah and Jewish Halacha. In the election held on the eve of Israel’s 75th Independence Day, more than 500,000 people voted for a politician who openly declared a few years earlier that the Jewish state needs to be managed according to the Torah.

“We need to go back to the way the state was managed during the reign of King David and King Solomon,” this party leader said. “In the long term, I want to see the State of Israel run according to the Torah. That is how it should be.”

Was this a slip of the tongue? No. Instead, what it represented was a vision that saw Israel as something not considered by the majority of the country’s citizens. For this politician and many of his followers – not all religious and definitely not Haredi – it is not enough to have the State of Israel be known as the nation state of the Jewish people or have a holiday calendar based on the Jewish holidays. Its laws need to be based on ancient Jewish Halacha. Only then, would the dream of Zionism come true.

But this is not what the modern Jewish state is meant to be. The State of Israel is Jewish because of the purpose for which it was founded – to serve as a safe haven for Jews from around the world and as a place all Jews can look to as their home, no matter if they live in New York, Paris, Moscow, Casablanca or Sydney.

It is a country that goes to leaps and bounds to protect Jews, to save Jews and to sustain them. It is a country that sends spies to airlift Ethiopian Jews to safety, opens its borders to help Jewish refugees from Ukraine and creates financial incentives to lure middle-class Jews from North America.

It is Jewish because Hebrew is the language that is spoken on its streets, because the two days with the most detailed traffic reports in the media are on the night of the Passover Seder and on the first evening of Rosh Hashana when millions of people are traveling to be with family across the country. It is Jewish because on Yom Kippur, even if you don’t fast, you don’t drive because it’s just not something that is done.

Can it be more Jewish?

It is Jewish because for the first time in 2,000 years, Jewish soldiers are going into battle yelling out commands to one another in Hebrew like Joshua or King David might have done thousands of years before them. It is Jewish because when these soldiers do fight, they know they are fighting for the survival of an ancient people which has been persecuted for millennia, but persevered, survived and rebuilt an independent sovereign state in their ancient homeland against all odds.

It is Jewish because unlike other countries in the world, newspapers don’t print on Saturdays and they all publish the Shabbat times – when the day of rest begins and ends.

It is Jewish, because even though only about 40 percent of the country are religiously observant, over 60 percent light Shabbat candles on Friday at dusk and almost 80 percent take advantage of Shabbat to spend time with their families.

Does this make Israel a religious state? No. Does it make it Jewish? Definitely.

This delicate situation though is at increased risk. The failure over 75 years to create a clear balance of power between the government and religious life has led to a situation in which matters of religion and state remain interlocked with the country’s political system.

Not only does Israel not have a separation of religion and state, it has politicized religion, turning people away and off from anything to do with Jewish tradition.

One clear example of this is the increasing number of Israelis who are moving away from using the rabbinate to officiate at their weddings and instead prefer to simply not be married, or to get married outside of Israel in places like Cyprus or over Zoom in places like Utah. In recent years, the number of Israelis marrying through the rabbinate has dropped by almost 10 percent.

These are people turned off from the politicization of religion and do not want to be part of an institution that they feel is disingenuous.

Can this change? Of course. The moment people feel that religion is not being forced on them is the moment they will be willing to engage more in the traditions and customs that make up the Jewish story.

For Israel to be Jewish it does not need to force people to marry through the rabbinate. It needs to create an open market for religion that will allow people to be the type of Jew they want to be, to practice how they want and to engage in the Jewish story the way they want.

The reason this does not happen is due to a fear by the religious political establishment of losing power and control, not just over the institutions that provide them with budgets, jobs and authority, but also over the communities they claim to represent. An open market for Judaism would threaten the monopoly that these political figures desperately cling to under the false pretense that they are safeguarding Judaism.

It is an issue that strikes at the core of the Jewish character of the state. In every Jewish community in the world today Jews of different backgrounds and from different movements work together and partner on joint initiatives. We have all seen how rabbis who are Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, Reform or Conservative can somehow sit together in New York, London or Sydney. For some reason though they cannot do the same in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or Beersheba.

How is it that in Israel, the Jewish state, streams of Judaism which represent millions of Jews around the world are referred to as evil and treated as second class?

Something has become broken in the state’s relationship with Jewish religion. Instead of striving to open up Judaism to the people and to make it more accessible, the state has tightened its grip on religion, turning more people away from the beauty our ancient religion has to offer Israel and the world.

Creating a free market for religion would not only heal internal domestic tension but would also improve Israel’s relationship with the Jewish communities across the Diaspora. Israel is the Jewish state and to retain that status, it needs to give Jews from around the world a feeling that they can look at Israel as their home. This is a responsibility.

This situation can change and improve and when it does, it will create a more Jewish society, one where the free market will generate greater opportunity for engagement with our ancient story.

Yaakov Katz is editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.