Rereading the Israeli Internal Relations between Secular and Religious Groups

The relationship between secular and religious groups in Israel went through several disputing stages, all the way to what we are seeing today.

Written by: Khalil Abu Karesh

From the beginning, the Zionist movement’s adoption of religious grounds to define national identity contributed to determining the interaction level between religious, political and social entities and groups in the State of Israel. In addition, religious activists in Israel contributed to the strengthening of their power and transition from the political margin to the center.

The relationship between secular and religious groups in Israel went through several disputing stages, all the way to what we are seeing today. During those stages, there were many issues that constituted the core and appearance of the dispute and resulting gap. These issues would momentarily disappear only to reappear later with more clarity and further increase the gap between these groups. The Israeli political division has witnessed a permanent presence of issues related to religion, state and society, where the manifestations of a religious-secular gap have multiplied and overshadowed the central aspects of Israeli the scene.

This article seeks to shed light on the society in Israel and the deeply involved and complicated relations within. As debates and accusations between secular and religious parties begin with every appearance of crisis in Israel, each party attempts to maintain its interests and preservation of its beliefs aiming to impose its agenda on Israel’s public life. Right-wing party leaders view religious people as a pool of votes, while the other party sees religious people as a heavy burden on the existing system who drain resources and budgets without actual participation in bearing the burdens and consequences.

History of the Relationship between Secular and Religious People in Israel:

After the establishment of Israel, the relationship between the secular and religious groups went through three stages. However, it is necessary to note that the history of this relationship occurred much before the state’s establishment.

The First Stage: It is the stage that was marked by the secularists’ dominance and control of public life from the moment the state was established until 1973. Even though the conquest for victory was present in the behavior and attitudes of the secularists, the guarantees contained in the “status quo agreement” that Ben Gurion granted to the religious people in 1947 were maintained. This agreement included the delegation of all matters of personal status law to religious courts alone, the sanctity of the Sabbath, the observation of dietary laws (kosher) in all state institutions and the grant of educational autonomy to religious schools, which gave space for religious people to influence some aspects of life. Despite all the arrangements and regulations based on the “status quo agreement,” it did not prevent disputes over issues related to the unanswered question of what a Jewish state actually meant. These disputes continued for many years and appeared on many occasions.

The Second Stage: After the end of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and Israel’s defeat, the features of this stage began to appear. In light of the shock and crisis that the Israeli society experienced, the religious people considered this reality as an opportunity that can be utilized, where they started to make demands that go beyond issues of personal status and the religious style of life. They further desired to influence security and foreign policy issues to introduce Orthodox national values. At this point, the so-called “democratic coup” occurred in 1977, where the Likud party managed, for the first time, to gain power, thus, giving a great impetus to the religious groups and strengthened their political parties.

The Third Stage: The features of this stage began to show after Benjamin Netanyahu became Israel’s Prime Minister in 1996. Israel began witnessing sharp polarization between the two parties, as the escalation of the conflict appeared. This stage carried a distinction in favor of the religious people in various areas of life, where they obtained additional privileges. This was also the stage of attempts to lead the judicial system, including the Supreme Court, and to rethink the value chain that was promoted by seculars. With every general election that took place in Israel, the conflict and gap deepened and strengthened between the two groups.

The stages that both groups went through in their relationship indicate that it has moved from consensual policies to confrontational and escalation policies regarding religion and state issues, with each group seeking to achieve decisiveness and refrain from making concessions. Each side lives in a world that is contradictory to the other world, and the calm conditions that we witness in the level of this contradiction (including coalition-building) are nothing more than preventing the other party from affecting the public space.

Fear and Mistrust in the Other Party: The state of fear and mistrust between the groups portrays the depth of the secular-religious gap in Israel. The Haredim, or Ultra-Orthodox Jews, are afraid of external influences on their lifestyle and reject any policies that come from non-religious groups in order to maintain the Jewish character of the state. Moreover, the Ultra-Orthodox Jews also have great suspicion of the secularists, as they view the spread of secularism as a threat to the very essence of the Jewish existence.

Perception of the State, Identity, and Political System: The Haredim see secular Israel as the antithesis of a 2000-year dream. Therefore, they oppose secularism, which may lead to an autocratic system and may explain the long-lasting period of Netanyahu’s rule. On the other hand, the secularists fear that the glare of identity will be extinguished due to the increasing strength of the religious groups and their constant pursuit to promote religious pattern that blatantly contradicts democratic values, especially in the absence of a state constitution.

The Legal Aspect: This is one of the most important areas of conflict between the two parties, as the Zionist movement initially ceded the principle of separating religion from the state through its embrace of religious bases of the state definition. Thus, the controversy moved to the principle of the rule of law. Is it for civil institutions such as the Supreme Court and the Knesset, or for the religious institutions represented by the rabbinate? The contradiction in this field was not different from the others, as it went through stages of ups and downs and reached advanced levels. Those differences and conflicts pour into the dialectic relationship between Judaism as a nationality and as a religion, and the possibilities of separating them.

Case of Controversial Relations: Israel was affected by the spread of COVID-19 as cases suddenly started to appear and people began to die. The state bodies began implementing preventive measures in order to limit the spread of the virus, as it closed public parks, demanded social distancing, stopped public transportation and closed schools and universities. It also used security services to track people who have COVID-19 and even determined the people who were in contact with them.  However, the behavior of the Haredi came in contrast to the measures that were taken. On the ninth of March 2020, after the Jewish Purim festivals, 7,000 people were quarantined. The Israeli government decided to prevent gatherings as well as close the places of worship, which was rejected by the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Several educational institutions, affiliated with the religious groups, opened their doors, in accordance to Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky’s instructions, who ruled that “stopping the studying of the Torah is a greater risk to the Jewish people than the Coronavirus.”  Then, he asked the people to not to abide by the orders of the Israeli Ministry of Health. The Israeli Minister of Health, from the right wing, Jacob Litzman, helped cement the prevailing belief in the Haredi community, by indicating that the end of the virus would be through divine intervention. This statement caused a sensation in Israeli society after the disclosure of high numbers in COVID-19 cases in the towns with high numbers of religious inhabitants. Later, Minister Litzman, who belongs to a religious party, attempted to use his influence within the religious community to persuade Rabbi Kanievsky to change his decision. Israeli government officials also sought to take advantage of his devotion to religion in order to convince Kanievsky to change his decision, but the latter refused.

Bnei Brak, a suburb of Tel Aviv, became an epicenter of the Coronavirus, due to its residents’ failure to comply with the imposed health measures as a result of these contradictions. The Coronavirus pandemic brings us back to the most fundamental question: Are religious groups a part of the Israeli social structure that subscribes to different forms of state power, or do they have special rules, facilities, and privileges?

At the end of 2019, the Israel Institute for Democracy, affiliated with the University of Tel Aviv, estimated that the number of religious people is about 125,000, which represents 12% of the population of Israel. In spite of this number, Israeli doctors estimate that 40% to 60% of people who have COVID-19 are amongst the religious people.

The pandemic again shows polarization and evidence of the relationship gaps between secular and religious groups, as both sides exchanged accusations of causing the widespread of the pandemic and failure to comply with the imposed preventive measures issued by the competent authorities.

The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author and not necessarily the opinion of the Association or donor.

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