March 7, 2007


RELIGION AND SECULARISM IN ISRAEL: Unholy Conflict in the Holy Land: The majority of Israelis are secular Jews, but the religious Jews in the country wield enormous influence. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, designed it that way, inadvertently blueprinting a conflict that has yet to be resolved. (Annette Grossbongardt, 3/07/07, Der Spiegel)

For almost 60 years now, the secular and the religious have been at war over what defines a good Jew. Is it someone who follows God's commandments meticulously and adheres as far as conceivably possible to religious traditions? Or, alternatively, someone who serves the state of Israel, but almost never sets foot in a synagogue, and only wears the yarmulke - the skullcap mandatory for religious Jews - in exceptional circumstances? The clash of cultures over national identity is omnipresent in Israeli society, and there seems to be no consensus in sight.

"While radical secularists want to detach society from its traditional Jewish roots, radical traditionalists want to eradicate its modern, western values," says Aviezer Ravitzky, professor of Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This unresolved tension also explains Israelis' inability to agree on a constitution 58 years into the country's history.

The orthodox groups believe that in Erez Israel, Judaism's heartland, they have finally found the true place to live in accordance with God's commandments.

In contrast, western, more individualistically minded Israelis feel severely constrained by religious strictures. They see freedom as one of the Jewish state's key achievements. They aspire to the kind of lifestyle people enjoy in industrial countries; for instance, being allowed to drive cars, eat in restaurants or go to the movies on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.

In fact, this is quite possible at many places in Israel, even in Jerusalem. Teddy Kollek, the legendary former mayor, successfully forged a compromise for the holy city, with rights accorded to both sides. The secularists are allowed to open a few caf├ęs in their quarter on the Sabbath, while the religious can close specific streets to traffic in their part of the city. Even the ultra-orthodox mayor, Uri Lupolianski from the Torah Party, has been powerless to intervene. Nonetheless many secular families have opted to leave for the more cosmopolitan Tel Aviv or other places where religious Jews are scarce.

If being Jewish is purely a matter of ethnicity rather than faith, then how would Zionism differ from racism?

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 7, 2007 8:08 AM

Who said that it wasn't. It was the supercession that wiped away the racism of the old Jerusalem.

Posted by: Lou Gots at March 7, 2007 2:06 PM

Lou Gots:

Moynihan, decent people everywhere, the Israeli government, etc. Note that it was a bunch of cretins at the U.N. who said otherwise.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at March 8, 2007 6:26 AM