Religion and Politics in Israel and Jerusalem

By Sharkansky, Ira | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview
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Religion and Politics in Israel and Jerusalem


Sharkansky, Ira, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


Israel presents an intriguing site for examining the role of religion in politics. In many respects, it is a polar opposite of the typical Western, secular democracy.(1) Founded as a Jewish state, Israel I did not follow the trend that had prevailed for more than a century in Europe and North America@ instead, Israel brought religion into the state, though in a complicated way. Nevertheless, while religious issues regularly appear with high levels of intensity in Israel, public policy even for the Holy City of Jerusalem resembles the situation in numerous Western democracies.

Religious interests are powerful enough to affect the political agenda but not so powerful as to dominate policy making. The many and complex religious doctrines and practices multiply the demands coming from religious constituencies, and limit the influence of individual religious leaders. Secular interests, including the antireligious, are sufficiently powerful to block religious initiatives, though these either do not wish to dominate the state against religious interests, or they are not strong enough to do so.(2) While partisans of religion or of secular values both claim that the other is aggressive and dominates public policy, in reality there is a tense standoff between the two views.

Judaism's character as an ethnic religion permits a wide range of doctrinal postures. Judaism's roots in the Hebrew Bible include a collection of stories, laws, moral precepts, bits of theology, social criticism, and other wisdom collected over the centuries, rather than clearly ordered doctrines.(3) Rabbinical traditions recognize disputes among sages and communal differences. As European Jews left the isolation of closed religious communities for the experience of the Enlightenment in the nineteenth century, they became enthusiastic socialists, free-market liberals, Zionists, humanists, agnostics, atheists, or pietists, and even the latter could choose from Hasidic, anti-Hasidic, and non-Orthodox congregations.(4) The result is that the Jews of Israel, like those of the Diaspora, differ among themselves on religion and politics. Even those who think of themselves as Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox on the one hand, or antireligious on the other, do not agree with other members of the same groups on issues of public policy concerned with religion. While religious issues appear high on Israel's political agenda, other aspects of Israeli society and its history work to moderate the intensity of religious demands; there are few clear victories for religious or secular (including antireligious) groups.

Religious authorities have a formal monopoly on marriages and divorces performed in Israel, but actual practice is something of a muddle. The Interior Ministry records citizens as married or divorced when done outside the country (sometimes by mail, without ever leaving Israel), according to criteria that would not permit them to marry or divorce in Israel. Such confusion about religion and policy is the norm rather than the exception. Even in Jerusalem, with its history, holy sites, and diverse population, where religious issues are especially prominent, religious and secular interests exist in a condition of chronic tension. When religious activists have put issues on the political agenda, they have not been able to dictate how controversies will end.

One of the reasons that religious issues are permanently on the agenda is that they are not finally resolved one way or another. Not only are secular interests opposed to religious interests, the latter are not monolithic and are factionalized. Disputes on matters of principle, as well as competition between religious parties, yeshivot (religious academies), congregations, and personal animosities between rabbis get in the way of a solid Jewish religious front. Judaism is strong enough to assure respect, and one party is occasionally victorious, but falls short of defining the tangible substance of important policy issues, especially in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

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