Religion and State

The Jewish people are a people that live apart – excerpt

The following is an extract from the introduction of the new book of  Dr. Shuki Friedman, vice-president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, “Being a Nation-State in the Twenty-First Century,” published by Academic Studies Press.

“I see a people that lives apart,” said the prophet Balaam about the people of Israel (Numbers 23:9) and indeed, at least from the perspective of church and state relations in Israel, Balaam was right.

The State of Israel is unique, different from any other country in the world. This book deals with the interplay between religion and state in Israel and seeks to provide a perspective on and meaning to these relations. But to allow a better understanding of the conflicts over the Jewish identity of the State of Israel, described throughout the book, I will begin with a broad overview of Israel’s identity axes, the constitutional regime built along with them, and the rifts that characterize Israeli society.

Israel is a nation-state. It is the nation-state of the Jewish people. But unlike other nation-states, the fundamental defining feature of the Jewish nation-state is its Jewishness. The State of Israel, as determined constitutionally, is a Jewish (and democratic) state. It is the world’s only Jewish state. One might ask: Other nation-states are also unique; what makes Israel special? Whereas in other nation-states, several characteristics, apart from territory, bind the citizens of the state and make them the people, the fundamental and central definition of the State of Israel is its Jewishness – an identity component that results from interweaving almost inextricable ethnic and religious affiliation.

Therefore, while in other nation-states an immigrant or a minority member can usually choose to feel at home within the national identity, even if not perfectly, a non-Jew will never fully be a national member of the Jewish nation-state.

For those who grew up with the American constitutional tradition, which regards the First Amendment’s Non-establishment clause as a core element of its national foundational framework, it is difficult to understand how different the State of Israel is in this respect. In contrast to the American wall of separation between church and state, in Israel the Jewish religion is deeply rooted and integrated into the country’s constitutional mechanisms of government.

This is easily illustrated by its allocation of a budget to religious issues. In the US, issues such as funding transportation to religious schools or using public school facilities after school for religious purposes have long been the subject of sharp debate. In fact, the US Supreme Court is currently debating its long tradition of rulings limiting the scope of legitimate public funding of religious education.

In contrast, in Israel, religious studies are the core curriculum of about 40% of the schools in the formal, state-financed education system. The scope of the funding allocated for this, and for other distinctly Jewish-religious purposes, is enormous and constitutes a significant percentage of the State of Israel’s budget.

Even for the European observer familiar with the tradition of the Christian state, understanding the situation in Israel is not intuitive. While a fundamental precept of Christianity calls for the separation of the kingdom of heaven from the kingdom of man, Judaism in its fundamentalist form advocates an all-encompassing rule of heaven, including the management of the affairs of the kingdom of man – the state. In this respect, Judaism is somewhat similar to its sister religion, Islam. As in Judaism, in Islam the word of God as expressed in Sharia, Muslim law, should regulate the conduct of state affairs.

But even with regard to Islam and Muslim countries, Israel is special. In some Muslim countries, Islamic identity is indeed a cornerstone of government and constitutionality, but it is not the single defining feature of their unique national distinctiveness. After all, there are dozens of Muslim nation-states in the world, which, despite their common religious denominator, differ from one another, and in too many cases also fight each other.

The book

What, then, makes Judaism such a unique defining element of a nation-state and one that makes the State of Israel a unique case among nation-states? To understand this, one can turn to Jewish history. In a nutshell, Jewish history ranges from a sovereign or semi-sovereign existence for about a thousand years in the Land of Israel, 2,000 years ago, to a decentralized existence of 2,000 years in the Diaspora.

This history has created an identity compound that mixes classic national elements of territory, language, and common past, with identity definitions that stem from the Jewish religion and rely on Jewish law as created mainly after the period of Jewish national sovereignty. This Halacha built legal walls around the Jews, in order to preserve a religious, but also ethnic, identity uniqueness and thus preserve, despite the geographical dispersion, the Jewish nation. This strategy, it should be noted, has been a phenomenal success.

Among scholars of the phenomenon of nationalism, there is well-known controversy as to the “nationalism” of the Jewish people that well illustrates the unique identity complexity of Judaism. On the one hand, some scholars of nationalism, those of the modernian school, including Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson, argue that Judaism is a religion and therefore Jewish nationalism is fundamentally an ontological impossibility.

On the other hand, scholars of nationalism belonging to the ethno-symbolic school, including Anthony Smith, believe that the Jewish people is the model of an ancient nationalism that has been renewed.

In the 19th century, carried on the waves of the European “Springtime of Nations,” the founding fathers of the State of Israel sought to establish a Jewish nation-state in the Land of Israel. From the first Zionist Congress in 1897 to the present day, the definitional challenge of Judaism and its definition disturbs, and perhaps even haunts, the Jewish state. What is the Jewishness of the Jewish state?

The first Zionists asked themselves this question and it is still being asked by the citizens of 21st-century Israel. Is it the secular-national expression of what Judaism was until Zionism and the establishment of the state and its religious components a shell that should be shed? Is it the traditional commitment to the legal-halachic norms and rules of Judaism as shaped in the Oral Torah that should be its identity compass? Or is there some balance to be struck between these two ideas?

The issue that most clearly illustrates the entanglement of Jewish identity and the relationship between the State of Israel and its Judaism (and which I will address in more detail below) is the question of “who is a Jew” or what defines Jewishness in the eyes of the state. It can be assumed that in the very distant past, at the beginning of Jewish sovereignty, well before exile, the basis for belonging to the Jewish people was purely tribal-ethnic, and joining this people, as the book of Ruth teaches us, was simply a matter of will.

D.r Shuki Friedman

Over the years, in the Diaspora, alongside the ghetto walls, the walls of Jewish identity also rose. Joining and belonging to what was predominantly an innate Judaism was conditional on the conversion process, which requires a complete willingness to keep the commandments of the Jewish law – the Halacha.

During these long years of life in the Diaspora, the clear defining element of Judaism was religion, and it was Jewish law that determined who could enter its gates. With the advent of Zionism, and even more so with the establishment of the Jewish state, the question of the definition of Judaism became much sharper. This is because the essential, central defining element of the Jewish state is that the majority of its citizens are Jews.

By virtue of the Law of Return, which states that every Jew can immigrate to Israel, Judaism is key to Israeli citizenship. But what is it? David Ben-Gurion, the founding father of the Jewish state, wanted to establish a secular Jewish state in the Land of Israel. He wanted the young nation-state to set the boundaries of Judaism and its definitions. In matters concerning the society established in the Land of Israel, such as its entrance gate and its recognition of one’s Jewishness, formulated national-secular definitions were not bound by the religious-halachic standard.

To his distress, a political crisis surrounding the definition of Judaism erupted, and when he saw that he might lose to the religious politicians, Ben-Gurion turned to the “sages of Israel.” He wrote to a number of Jewish thinkers, many of them not religious, and asked them what they thought defined Judaism.

The “sages of Israel” disappointed Ben-Gurion. Although they presented a wide variety of possibilities for Jewish identity as a matter of principle, most of them admitted that there is a religious component to Jewish identity that is not easily neutralized. They thought this was true even in the case of Jewish nationalism, and that it was expressed in the secular Jewish state, which had opened a new definitional space.

Israel has no written constitution. The never-ending debate about the meaning of its Jewish identity when it was founded is one of the reasons for this. But over the years, the State of Israel has created a constitution that is based on its Declaration of Independence and made up of the Basic Laws that have been enacted, one by one, throughout the 75 years of the state’s existence.

Both the Declaration of Independence and the Basic Laws enacted in 1992 enshrined the dual, complicated nature of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” In so doing, the constitution of the state rests on a foundation with significant potential for conflict. Democracy in the thick sense – substantial/liberal democracy – means the uncompromising adoption of a long line of liberal values and human rights.

Anti-government protest in Tel Aviv. Photo by Gideon Markovich, TPS

Judaism in the full and fundamental sense implies obedience to Jewish laws and norms, some of which are in contradiction with liberal values. In addition, Jewish nationalism in the broader and more extreme sense means, at least in the eyes of some Israelis, reduced rights for the Arab minority.

This debate is significantly reflected in the daily political, sociocultural existence of the State of Israel. Two major schisms have divided Israeli society since its inception: the Jewish-Arab rift, and the religious-secular rift. At the heart of the Arab-Jewish rift is a dispute over the balance between the Jewishness – in the national sense – of the state and the rights of the large Arab minority living in it.

At the heart of the religious-secular rift is controversy over the significance of the state’s Jewish nature, in the religious sense, and the expression that should be given to the state’s Jewishness in general, especially when it conflicts with other rights and values. These rifts have many legal, structural and practical expressions.

There are many interconnections between these rifts. The debate over Judaism, in the religious sense of the state, impacts the debate around Judaism in the national sense, and vice versa. Therefore, the two rifts described have mutual implications and consequences. And yet in everyday Israeli reality, most of the controversial issues that are at the seam between the components of Israel’s identity can be associated with one of these rifts.

This can be illustrated as a tension moving along two axes: one between Judaism, in the national sense, and democracy; the other between Judaism, in the religious sense, and democracy. The subject of this book is the internal Jewish rift and the debate that is animated by a triangle of relations between democratic-liberal Israel, Jewish-national Israel, and Jewish-religious Israel. Some issues carry both tensions, others only one.

Israel is 75 years old, but the debate over the character of the state began in the early days of the Zionist movement. At first, when Zionism was simply an idea, the debate was purely ideological. To the extent that the idea found practical expression in the initiation of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel, this debate also took on concrete aspects in the daily reality of the Zionist enterprise.

Dilemmas regarding Sabbath observance vs individual liberties, shared public education vs the segregation of religious and non-religious schools, the management of religious services, and more, were already prominent for the pioneers of the renewed Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel.

These debates, which have become a constant struggle between people with different worldviews in all arenas of the State of Israel, are the subject of this book.

First published by The Jerusalem Post.