How Does Israel Compare to Religiously Extreme Countries?

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When the JTA reported that “Israel is in the company of countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran,” in terms of religious freedom, I was skeptical, and a little alarmed. 

I had three thoughts. 

  1. From a metacognitive lens, I thought about why I was so conflicted about this in the first place. Why was it so jarring to hear that Israel, a Jewish state, in the Middle East, would be any less religious than other countries in its neighborhood? Have I been so conditioned to think that Israel needs to be like America, Canada and other Western countries?
  2. On the other hand, something about the statement comparing Israel to Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran simply did not pass the sniff test for me. I mean, I’ve been to Israel many times, and while some areas of the country are seriously and intensely religious, other areas are remarkably secular.
  3. I needed to read the new Pew report on this topic, which is just a breezy 126-page read.

Is Israel really as religiously restrictive as these other countries as the Pew report indicates? 

As an educator, it’s also important to ask a different question: Suppose it is – so what? 

Let’s dive in. 

What Happened?

JTA reported (and the Jerusalem PostTimes of Israel, and Haaretz followed suit) that a new Pew report published last week found that Israel has “almost as many religious restrictions as Iran.”

Israel was also ranked #5 in terms of social hostilities related to religious norms, and came in at #6 when it comes to interreligious tension and violence, which — much of the media noted — was “a worse score than Syria.”

Specifically, the report cited the fact that “In Israel, drivers who operated cars near ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods on the Sabbath reported incidents of harassment, including name-calling and spitting, by ultra-Orthodox residents.” 

Why Does This Matter?

1. Policy or society? 
From a formal perspective, the ”status quo” agreement allows for the Orthodox Rabbinate to adjudicate issues like Shabbat, kashrut and marital status. In this way, the Pew report’s conclusions mirror reality. On the other hand, if one were to spend time in Tel Aviv, Haifa or many other locations throughout Israel, the description “religiously restrictive” would be a glaring misnomer.

2. Israel is a Jewish state…and Israel is a democratic state
At the end of the day, Israel is a Jewish state. It’s different than the U.S., which was founded on clear separation of church and state. Israel’s Declaration of Independence states: “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State. Accordingly we… are here assembled on the day of the termination of the British Mandate over Eretz-Israel and, by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” From its very inception, Israel has been a Jewish state, and has been grappling with the challenges that that brings, both internally and externally. Israel also has several “basic laws.” One of these, passed in 1992, is for the express purpose of protecting “human dignity and liberty, in order to establish in a Basic Law the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” and states that “there shall be no violation of the life, body or dignity of any person as such.” It goes on to address other principles of human dignity and liberty in Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state. 

3. The role of the Rabbinate
Israel has had chief rabbis since long before it became a state. Under Ottoman rule and its “millet” system, chief rabbis had long been in place. The Sephardic chief rabbi position has been in place since the 17th century, and the Ashkenazi since the 19th century (and given legal status under the British in 1920). This has been common practice in Jewish communities around the world for many years (though for various reasons a chief rabbi never took off in the U.S.). Back in 1947, matters of religion were hotly contested: members of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel movement wanted to preserve religious observance in a largely secular Zionist society, and Ben-Gurion acceded to their requests in order to present a united front ahead of the UN’s partition plan vote. This became known as the “status quo” agreement, which hasn’t changed much since. Today, the Israeli chief rabbinate (Rabbanut) is in charge of ritual matters such as kosher certification, marriage, divorce, conversion and more. See the next section for different perspectives on the Rabbanut’s role in Israel.

4. Consequences of violating “religious restrictions” 
While Israel may have religious bureaucracy that its citizens must navigate, and many find them to be restrictive, Israel Education and Advocacy organizations like StandWithUs remind us that “religious restrictions” in Israel are quite different than in Iran and other nearby countries. For example, while acts of homosexuality traditionally go against both Jewish and Islamic law, Israel is a safe haven for the LGBTQ community, whereas in Iran gay men are publicly put to death. Israeli lives are never at risk for disagreeing with or not following the Rabbanut’s policies.

Diversity of Perspectives Within Israel

In an op-ed piece, Arutz Sheva editor Rochel Sylvetsky addresses some criticisms against the Rabbanut, and reminds readers of its ultimate purpose: “The Chief Rabbinate is in charge of preserving the symbols that make Israel a Jewish state, making halakhic decisions on national issues… and, above all, ensuring the continuity of the Jews as one people in that State.” 

Dr. Shuki Friedman of the Israel Democracy Institute, on the other hand, has predictedthe end of the Chief Rabbinate. He contends that “there is no community in the State of Israel that accepts the discipline and the rulings of its rabbis.” He further states, “the rabbinate has also failed in providing religious services,” citing marriage, kashrut, and conversion as examples. He notes the rising privatization of religious services in Israel.

Recently in Israel, many organizations have sprung up designed to help people deal with the Rabbanut or circumvent it completely, answering a need in Israeli society. The organization ITIM “helps people navigate the religious authorities’ bureaucracy in Israel.” Tzohar is a group that seeks to bridge the secular and religious communities in Israel; it helps with lifecycle events and has “become the Jewish place of choice for a generation who spurn coercion and crave respect, relevance, and variety when it comes to their Jewish experience.” Hashgacha Pratit is a private kosher certification that boasts of “breaking the Chief Rabbinate’s Kashrut Monopoly.” There are several services that offer wedding packages in Cyprus and other international destinations, where many Israelis choose to marry to avoid doing so through the Rabbanut. One in five Israeli couples married abroad in 2010!

Discussion Questions

  1. The controversial and, at times, pesky Jewish philosopher Yeshayahu Leibovitz published an essay in Tradition magazine in 1972 in which he said:
    The truth is that religion lacks all power in the State of Israel land in its society and lacks all real influence in shaping their character. Yet there are large segments of the public who feel that they are subject to “religious coercion.” The “religious laws” in the State are enacted by a secular authority in the form which suits it best (out of governmental interests). They lack all religious meaning, and in most cases their content—which from a formal viewpoint is religious—in fact goes against the clearly stated rules of the Halakhah. The truth is that they constitute secular governmental coercion of religion, and at the same time they provide ammunition for anti-religious elements to arouse irritation and ire against religion—and no doubt this is the intention of those secular groups in the government (particularly Mapai) who oppose the separation of religion from the State.
    How does Leibovitz reframe how “religious” and “secular” should be understood?
  2. Ruth Gavison, legal expert and co-author of the Gavison-Medan covenant with Rabbi Ya’akov Medan, who seeks to promote religious and secular co-existence, has said: “If Israel is not democratic, it has no justification for being. If Israel is not Jewish, it has no reason to be.” Can secular and religious Israelis agree on this statement? What might a Jewish, democratic state that all could agree on look like?
  3. Journalist Stuart Schoffman takes a look back at the start of the Rabbanut, back when David Ben-Gurion was planning the State. Ben-Gurion made a deal with the haredim that gave them control of kashrut, marriage, divorce, Shabbat as the day of rest and military exemption for Yeshiva students (who numbered in the hundreds then). He argues that Ben-Gurion was motivated by the following: “After the Holocaust… Ben-Gurion and his secular comrades understandably felt a need to indulge the surviving practitioners of the separatist Judaism that kept Diaspora Jews afloat for centuries. Besides, they probably figured that ultra-Orthodoxy, in a sovereign, modern state, would soon wither away.” Does this interpretation of the beginning of religious Israel change your understanding of the issues at hand? It is possible that Ben-Gurion underestimated the power the haredim would eventually have – does this change things?
  4. Many western countries “positively” portray Israel as a secular, Western country just like them. Some pro-Israel groups will spend time focusing on how Israel can be and should be perceived as liberal, as non-religious and as progressive as other Western countries. Let’s discuss this. Is this stress of similarities positive for Israel or is it detrimental to Israel because it forces Israel to be Western in a way that perhaps it can never (and is not meant to) achieve? 

Practical Classroom Tips

  1. See our past articles about religion and state in Israel: Controversial Construction on ShabbatIs Studying Torah a National Service?Israel’s PurposeEurovision on Shabbat, and Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem and have your students determine where they stand on the question of Israel as a religious state.
  2. Ask your students to choose an article from the Israel Democracy Institute archive on the subject of Judaism and democracy. Write down the article’s main points and any questions they have. 
  3. Use the issue of public transportation on Shabbat as a case study. On the one hand, the state allows for individuals to profane the Shabbat laws. Every individual has the right to observe the laws of Shabbat or break them. From a halakhic perspective, this is a religious violation. But this same secular government bans public transport in certain areas. Leibovitz, cited above, provocatively argues, “This is a bribe to Orthodox Jews to look the other way. This prohibition lacks all religious meaning.” If you were to create a Jewish state from scratch, how would you develop the religious nature of the state? Who is included in the process and who is not? 
  4. Currently the Chief Rabbinate in Israel is Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and controls marriage, divorce, burial and Jewish conversion in the country. The vast majority of Jews in Israel would not identify as Haredi, yet the Haredim are often particularly scrupulous about religious law in a way that other communities are not. Think through this challenge with your students; what would happen to the society in Israel if the Chief Rabbinate were not in the hands of the Haredim? Would this be good for the country or would it be damaging? Should Israel have a Chief Rabbinate? Why or why not?

In Other News…

  1. This past Wednesday, Israel experienced an intense heat wave that caused several fires throughout the country. In Sodom, near the Dead Sea, temperatures reached record-breaking 49.9 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit)! 
  2. Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, is set to finish his tenure in the position in September, despite Netanyahu’s request for him to stay on.
  3. Iman Hatib Yassein was elected to the United Arab List party. If the party gets enough votes in the upcoming September election, she will become the first religiously observant Muslim woman in the Knesset.

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is the Senior Vice President of Education at Jerusalem U. Noam holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design. Before joining Jerusalem U, he was the principal of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, where he spent 9 years actively engaging and empowering students to find meaning in their Jewish learning.

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