Opinion Articles

The Elephant in the Room: Relations between Religion and State in Israel

Published in: Ynet English

There is an elephant in the room. It is filling the entire space, yet appears to be calm. If it makes the slightest move, however, it will cause major damage to its surrounding. Everyone is tiptoeing quietly around the elephant. Professional rabble-rousers—politicians from the left and right, people with special interests seeking their cut, members of the media who crave buzz, and a gaggle of NGOs and organizations that have perfected the art of elephant-taming—have sealed their lips. Everyone understands that now is the time to remain quiet.

But this is not a case of stable equilibrium. The current lull is an illusion, and its expiration date is known to all. As soon as it expires, the elephant will wave its trunk with a loud trumpet and will follow a path that can be predicted in advance. The people in the room are not interested in that path. They have the sense that it is inevitable though, and are paralyzed as a result. They are all afraid, each in their own way, that the elephant will trample them. Preserving the peace, therefore, is an existential necessity.

Meet the elephant in the room: the relationship between religion and state in Israel. In the 2013 election campaign, it was a central player, the key issue. Back then, for example, the Supreme Court’s invalidation of the Tal Law, which had regulated the deferral of military service for yeshiva students, led to the dissolution of the coalition and the elections in which Kadima, then Israel’s largest party, disintegrated, and Yesh Atid came out of the blue to become the second-largest party. The outgoing coalition also teetered precariously due to the controversy surrounding the regulation of conversion. The old-timers among us remember the Sabbath wars, the battles over personal status law, and the controversy surrounding the Supreme Court, which is also, in part, derived from the issue of religion and state.

In the current election campaign, however, religion and state are nowhere to be seen. As at the experience of Mt. Sinai, when “birds did not chirp, cows did not low, and angels did not sing,” there is not a sound. Try to invite the heads of any political party to a public discussion of religion and state and you will discover that their ability to disappear is greater than that of the Cheshire Cat. Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party, which one would expect to have issues of religion and state at the heart of its mandate, is talking about anything but. The fact that the Haredi Leumi (nationalist ultra-Orthodox) rabbis of the Tekuma faction are lurking in the background makes the party reluctant to take a stand on delicate questions regarding the relationship between religion and state.

And what about the two largest parties—the Likud and the Zionist Union? Both of them know that ultimately, it is the ultra-Orthodox sector that can butter their bread with the spoils of government. The actual size of that sector—about 11% of Israel’s population—is a far cry from the elephant’s mass; however, since the ultra-Orthodox community has the power to tip the scales, it is the kingmaker; in the words of the High Holiday liturgy, it “appoints kings and is itself the king.” Even Yesh Atid, which is committed to shattering the religion-and-state idols, is moderating its message now.

The lack of any discussion of religion and state in this election campaign is nothing less than ideological corruption. Everyone is being careful not to prod the elephant in the ribs. They would prefer to be able to ride him in a future coalition agreement, even though they know that the price for that agreement will be violations of human rights, diminished equality, and damage to the status of religion in Israel and, indirectly, to the Jewish character of the State of Israel.

The outgoing coalition had great promise in the area of religion and state because it did not include the ultra-Orthodox and it did not commit to maintaining the status quo on this matter. Our great disappointment is commensurate with our earlier expectations. During the course of the 19th Knesset, no progress was made on most issues of religion and state, and the changes that were adopted were either ill-advised (e.g., the criminal sanctions for ultra-Orthodox draft dodging in the Equal Burden of Service Law) or only half-steps (e.g., the government resolution on conversion left the Chief Rabbi in control of the conversion process). In the next coalition, whoever wishes to be Prime Minister of a coalition that includes the ultra-Orthodox parties will have to retreat even from the questionable achievements of the outgoing Knesset in this area, unless a national unity government is formed instead.

This is a tragedy, because it would be possible to achieve an appropriate relationship between religion and state if only the public were allowed to choose, based on its preferences regarding the matters at hand. Detailed proposals have been put forward on issues such as personal status law, conversion, the Sabbath, and conscription of the ultra-Orthodox, which the majority of the Jewish public—both secular and religious—support. If the next Knesset were to have a polling booth that allowed a secret ballot on these issues, three-quarters of the members of Knesset or more—including a majority of the members of Bayit Yehudi—would vote in favor of these proposals.

The Israeli public must demand that Israel’s leaders take a clear position on the core issues of religion and state. If enough Israelis exert such pressure, and make it clear that this issue is important enough to determine their vote, the elephant in the room may just go away.

Prof. Yedidia Stern is a Vice President of Research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a Professor of Law at Bar-Ilan University.

This article was first published as “Tiptoeing around Religion and State in Israel” on the Ynet English website and has been reprinted with permission.