Synagogue and State: Religion and Politics in Modern Israel

By Liebman, Charles S.; Cohen, Asher | Harvard International Review, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Synagogue and State: Religion and Politics in Modern Israel


Liebman, Charles S., Cohen, Asher, Harvard International Review


CHARLES S. LIEBMAN is Avner Professor of Religion and Politics, and ASHER COHEN lectures in the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

Jews constitute about 80 percent of the Israeli population. Roughly one-fifth define themselves as "religious," by which they mean that they are fully or almost fully observant of Jewish law. Almost all of the remaining Jews maintain many of the customs and rituals of the Jewish religion and firmly believe that Israel is and should remain a Zionist or Jewish state. What precisely is meant by a "Jewish state" is a matter of dispute, but there is a consensus among

the vast majority of Jews that the symbols as well as the public policies of the state should reflect its Jewish nature and should serve the interests of the Jewish people, not only those who are citizens of Israel but also Jews throughout the world.

Only a small minority, estimated at about ten percent of Israeli Jews, neither observe any religious rituals nor feel any special identification with other Jews. Some define themselves as post-Zionists, and under the slogan, "Israel as a state for all its citizens," they challenge the notion that Israel should remain a Jewish state. They argue that the Jewish nature of Israel is incompatible with its existence as a liberal-democratic state. The more radical among them argue that Israel should sever its ties to its Jewish past and to the Jewish people. Much of what this group finds objectionable in Israeli life is represented by the memorialization of the Holocaust. Memory of the Holocaust, central to Israeli political culture, is preserved in monuments, institutions, school curricula, and a special day of observance. The manner in which the Holocaust is to be remembered, if at all, has become a focus of controversy between the Israeli establishment and its post-Zionist critics.

Though numerically small, the militant secularists and post-Zionists occupy key positions within Israel's cultural life. They include newspaper columnists, academics, writers, and artists (prominent playwrights in particular). Others within the cultural elite argue that the post-Zionists have gone too far in charging that Israel was "born in sin," but they are nevertheless sympathetic to the goal of reducing the presence of Judaism and Jewishness within Israeli life. In addition, the militants have won some sympathy among the broader population because of their vigorous opposition to the religious establishment and to the efforts of religious parties to enlarge the field of religious legislation.

These efforts have also won the support, in the last few years, of many Jews in the United States who resent the efforts of the religious establishment to deny legitimacy to non-Orthodox (Conservative and Reform) religious movements. Conservative and Reform Jews constitute a tiny proportion of the Israeli population, and they do define themselves as religious. However, they and their more numerous American sympathizers have made common cause with the militant secularists since both oppose the Orthodox religious establishment and the religious parties. These American Jews, it should be added, often do not understand the nature of the alliance of which they have become part.

The religious parties, in turn, have increased their efforts to enact religious legislation. Part of this effort can be understood as an attempt to counterbalance decisions by the Israeli courts under the leadership of the present Chief Justice. The courts in recent years have adopted an activist posture, interpreting the law in a manner which the religious public, and especially their leaders, find objectionable. For example, although Israeli law recognizes the validity of conversions performed by Conservative or Reform rabbis overseas, the government made clear as early as 1971 that the Ministry of Internal Affairs would not recognize non-Orthodox conversions when performed in Israel itself. …

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