Saturday, November 14, 2009

Freedom of Religion in Israel

Shahar Ilan has an interesting blog post (in Hebrew) he wrote after the release of the latest report by the US State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (you can read about it in Hebrew and in English). Ilan writes that not only is the treatment of religious minorities troubling, the treatment of secular Jews, which just might be the largest group in the country, is absurd. He mentions the fact that Israelis who want to marry in Israel have to go through the Orthodox Rabbinate, where grooms will be told that women are like clay that must be molded by their husbands and that women who aren't flattered are like fish out of water. If you don't want to go through this and would rather go the Reform, Conservative or civil marriage way, you better get married abroad.

Ilan says that, unfortunately, things will just get worse. Demographically, the illiberal sections of Israeli society, mostly the ultra-orthodox, are only growing. If we don't act now, he says, it will be too late to undo the discrimination against non-Jews, women and secular people. I agree with him.


  1. Well, I'm glad you do. I cannot proclaim to be an expert on Israeli society of course, a subject that only becomes of interest to me when it becomes tangential to the greater issue. I think it is becoming just that by the hour.

    My pet theory is that, as religion (similar to 'ideology' or 'Nationalism' with which it often allies itself) was always intended to provide social cohesion among a given group, a society that considers itself perennially at war and beleaguered will tend to veer towards increasing religiosity. One can see it on the other side too: it's not just Hamas that embraces Islam(ism) (when prior the Palestinians were really among the more secular of Arabs) but also Egypt and other Arab/Muslim states that are radicalising along religious lines.

    In the case of Israel, this is further compounded by the fact that at the heart of modern Zionism lays a religious concept: Israel as the Land promised to Jews in their covenant with G-d.

    I'm afraid this may be a trend that will be hard to reverse: secularism, for all its rational merits offers doubt, self-criticism and science but none of these are strong morale boosters for the average person.

  2. The "us vs. them" mentality may be the original basis for discrimination against non-Jews, but I don't think it's either the original basis for the orthodox hegemony over the Jewish population or the reason for the trend towards more discrimination in general.

    I think the main issue is just demographics. Religious people have a lot more children than secular people, and among the religious people, the ultra-orthodox have more kids than the regular orthodox. You seem to think that because of the security situation, more people are getting more religious. I doubt that's the case. There are plenty of people going in the other direction - from religious to secular.

  3. "You seem to think that because of the security situation, more people are getting more religious."

    Not really. What I'm saying is that in times of uncertainty and insecurity, people have a tendency to go back to basics and belief systems (religion, ideology or nationalism) that appear to provide solid answers and certitude... I think that's hard to honestly deny.

    A good example is Germany after its defeat in WW I: this resulted in enormous turmoil and an attempted Communist take-over, defeated shortly after by German Nationalists and the establishment of the Weimar Republic. That Nationalism ultimately led to the rise of the Nazis and WW II.

    The demographics are IMHO not the driver, rather they are an enabler.

    We hear plenty of stories of American Jews who 'rediscover' their Jewish identity after trips to Israel and many of those also rediscover the religious dimension of Israel. I think that's rather inevitable: there is no real secular narrative of note that underpins the Jewish RoR.

  4. Israelis are turning rightward, that's true. But turning toward nationalism and turning toward religion aren't the same, especially in this context, where more of the religious discrimination is actually coming from the ultra-orthodox than from the Zionist-orthodox.

    About Jewish Aliyah, as someone who knows a lot of secular American Jews who immigrated to Israel, including my father, I can tell you that many of them felt a sense of cultural and national belonging that didn't have much, if anything, to do with faith.