Even Israeli secularists don’t want a separation of religion and state

A picture taken from the Mount of Olives through a gate decorated with the Star of David shows a partial view of Jerusalem's Old City (AFP)

Antwan Shulhut

Middle East Eye  /  April 20, 2022

A complete separation between religion and the Israeli state would encounter strong rejection not only by religious parties but also by many secularists.

The surprise resignation this month of Idit Silman, a member of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, has brought the relationship between religion and the state to the forefront of public debate.

Silman said her resignation – which left Bennett’s coalition without a majority, with just 60 of 120 seats in the Knesset – came after a dispute with the health minister, who had ordered hospitals to allow leavened bread products into their facilities during Passover.

The decision was in line with a recent Supreme Court ruling reversing years of prohibition, but Silman said she could not “take part in harming the Jewish identity of Israel”. When it comes to the dispute between religion and secularism in Israel, the influence of ultra-Orthodox parties is strong and will remain this way.

While a few governments have been formed over the years without their presence, the resulting coalitions still knew they needed to preserve the interests of religious parties, whose support could be vital in the future. Right-wing parties, meanwhile, have always been keen on their “historic alliance” with religious parties.

‘Unique identity’

Indeed, the system of governance in Israel – described by some academics as ethnocratic, given the state’s definition of itself as Jewish – depends upon its continued close relationship with religion. 

Even those who say they want to preserve Israel as a democratic state cannot separate it from religion. A decade ago, the Israel Democracy Institute published an article that argued against separating church and state, as per the American model.

It noted that while many American Jews “view the Israeli paradigm in blatant opposition to the notion of individual rights and the very concept of Israel as a western state”, a different stance was needed in Israel.

The article cited a number of factors to support this position. Unlike the model of the US, considered to be “a country for all of its citizens”, Israel aims to preserve its “unique identity” as the “nation-state of the Jewish people”. This identity has long blended both national and religious components.

Late last year, in a Knesset session commemorating the anniversary of the death of founding Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid took the opportunity to remind his colleagues of Ben-Gurion’s approach to secularism, “not as the opposite of religiousness, but as a stream of Judaism” – despite the fact that Israeli researchers have doubted the existence of “Jewish secularism”, even if it is possible to find secular Jews.

Yet according to Lapid: “If you are a secular Israeli, you are actually traditional. You may not observe the mitzvahs, but you are Jewish, from the moment you wake up until the moment you fall asleep at night and dream your dreams in the language of the Bible.”

The article published by the Israel Democracy Institute also noted that on a practical level, the essence of Jewish culture “stems from the religious world of Judaism”. As a result, “a sweeping and fundamental separation of religion from state might obligate the Jewish state to give up core elements of its culture and state symbols”. 

As such, the article concluded, demands for a complete separation between religion and the Israeli state would encounter strong rejection not only by religious parties, but also by large sectors of the public, including secularists.

Perhaps this is why some Israeli politicians who adopt secular positions are content to merely chant slogans about the separation of church and state, without actually implementing corresponding policies.

Customs and traditions

The nature of Israeli secular society itself is also ambiguous and problematic, as many secular Israeli Jews still aim to preserve, at least to a certain extent, religious customs and traditions. According to the Israeli Democracy Index in 2020, just 32 percent of secularists said they did not maintain Jewish customs and traditions at all. 

In addition, a comprehensive analysis of religious behaviour patterns in Israel by the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research and the Avi Chai Foundation found that an overwhelming majority of secular Israeli Jews maintained one or more religious customs or traditions, such as eating kosher food, abstaining from travel on the Sabbath, fasting on Yom Kippur or Passover, or lighting candles on Hanukkah. 

Indeed, most secularists are not concerned that Israel adopts symbols with a religious background to represent itself, or that it places restrictions on freedoms and public property on the basis of religious values. Their primary focus is to ensure the state does not force individuals to strictly abide by religious rules.

This battle is primarily focused on abolishing the exclusivity of the Orthodox religious system in Israel, especially in personal status matters, such as marriage and divorce; it does not extend more broadly into removing the influence of religion on state policies.

As such, we can expect ultra-Orthodox parties to remain a significant influence on the governance of Israel in the years ahead.

Antwan Shulhut is a researcher of Israeli affairs and a literary critic; he is the author of The Oslo Collar (2018); Israeli security persecution as a political tool (2017); and Benjamin Netanyahu: The No-solution Doctrine (2015)