Sitting in a Jerusalem coffee shop several months ago, I listened quietly while an Israeli friend, an academic with secular views, went on a tirade against the nation's Orthodox Jews and what he saw as their desire to force religion down his throat. "Those guys think they can run this country," he muttered angrily, and continued with a torrent of invectives against his more devout countrymen.
After he left, an Arab Israeli friend who had also sat silently through the monologue looked at me. "You know," he smiled, "if I had said those things, you would have called me anti-Semitic." He was half-joking, but I knew what he meant. The cleavage between Israel's secular and religious Jews has grown so sharp that to many, it seems that only the conflict with the Arabs is keeping them together.
With all the focus on Israel's struggle with Palestinian terrorism, foreign political analysts and media have paid little attention to the simmering internal divide between the country's secular and Orthodox worlds. Yet this conflict, which has festered for decades, has the potential to be deeply destabilizing to Israel as a nation. Its resolution will determine what kind of state Israel, born to be a haven for Jews, will be in the years to come.
Oddly, this renewed social tension has come at a time when the clout of Israel's religious political parties is at an all-time low. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, leading a coalition government that is hawkish on national security but anti-religious on domestic policies, has come closer than any previous Israeli administration to achieving what the majority of Israelis have long desired -- an American-style separation of religion and state.
Now, however, with Sharon proposing a withdrawal from Gaza and an abandonment of some Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the religious parties are trying to reassert themselves. The government's accomplishments in taming religious excess on the domestic front may have to be traded away to get religious support for the new disengagement policy. As one religious politician put it in the Jerusalem Report magazine, "For me, to close down a school, yeshiva or synagogue is no less serious than evacuating a settlement."
For most Israelis, religion is an Orthodox-or-nothing affair. The Zionist pioneers who dreamed up the modern Jewish state more than a century ago came primarily from the socialist milieu of Eastern Europe and Russia. The desire to create a nation based on Jewish national identity went hand in hand with a desire to remove themselves from the religious orthodoxy, ghettos and other oppressions of the old country.
There was no room in this movement for a liberal, North American version of Judaism. The Conservative and Reform movements familiar to American Jews remain at the margins of Israeli society. Instead, the strenuous secularism of the early pioneers predominates in Israeli culture today, even as the country has abandoned socialist ideology and moved to the political right.
In the meantime, however, Orthodox Jewry also found a home in Israel. Pluralism in the Israeli religious world now varies only from men in black hats to those wearing crocheted kippahs. The latter tend to be nationalist, religious settlers, who view a territorially greater Israel as the ultimate political objective, while the former are for the most part ultra-Orthodox Jews who view the state, in whatever condition it exists, as secondary to all religious goals.
While the international media tend to focus on the religious zeal of the settlers, their brand of fervent nationalism is reflected in only one of the Knesset's several religious parties -- the National Religious Party. The others, including Shas, the representative of the extremely religious Jewish communities that immigrated to Israel from North Africa, and Agudath Yisrael, the primary political vehicle of ultra-Orthodox Jews of Eastern European descent, have focused on domestic affairs and have been sufficiently flexible on defense and security to work with either the right-leaning Likud or the left-leaning Labor parties.
As a result, the ultra-Orthodox parties have tended in the past to hold the balance of power in Israel's complicated and fractured system of proportional representation. They used this power to force religious restrictions on Israeli public life. El Al flights and all public transportation, for example, were grounded on the Sabbath. Marriage laws enabled men to withhold divorces from their wives. Yeshiva students were exempted from the compulsory three years of military service. But since the Jewish population of Israel is roughly 80 percent secular and only 20 percent religious, the politics of religion has caused enormous resentment to build up over the years.
These feelings came to a head in the elections of January 2003, when the religious parties lost a substantial number of seats in the Knesset, while Shinui -- the secular party that ran on a platform favoring a complete separation of synagogue and state -- more than doubled its number. Sharon's Likud party formed a coalition with Shinui, and the government embarked on a campaign of reducing domestic religious power. They focused on the notoriously bloated bureaucracy of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and set about dismantling its institutions and regulatory structures.
This dissolution has highlighted a certain irony in current Israeli politics. While affection for the Bush administration has produced some admiration for evangelical Christianity and its support for Israel, the current government has been the most antagonistic in Israel's history to state-sanctioned Judaism. The new power of the Shinui party, combined with the Likud's desire to cut the deficit and reduce non-defense-related spending, as Sharon indicated two weeks ago in a speech to religious leaders, have given rise to a broad attack on state-subsidized religious institutions.
Over the past few months, the dismantling of the ministry's bureaucracy of kosher food inspectors, yeshiva school administrators, ritual bathhouse managers and the like accelerated, and the funding for religious services dried up. In addition, Orthodox rabbis have been faced with a number of court challenges. In mid-June, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that municipalities, another traditional seat of rabbinical power, were not allowed to ban the sale of pork. For the leader of Shas, Eli Yishai, the ruling was one more "nail in the coffin of the Jewish identity of the state."
It is this very Jewish identity that is at the heart of the emotionally charged dispute. For secular Israelis, being Jewish has very little to do with religious laws and ritual. They would rather define themselves through a cultural lens. While many believe that religion should remain an integral part of the country, they want it kept separate from government. "I want to be able to shop on Saturday," a friend from Tel Aviv told me. "But I also want my children to grow up in a country with a Jewish identity."
Barbecued pork and Saturday shopping are very much part of the secular culture in places such as Tel Aviv, where the religious councils reflect the secular urban environment, and Israel boasts the only gay pride parade in the Middle East. The traditional rabbinical monopoly on issues of marriage, food imports, etc. seems hopelessly out-of-date to nonreligious Israelis, whose idea of a Jewish state is one with a national Israeli rather than a religious Jewish identity.
But now that the Gaza withdrawal is becoming imminent, the religious parties previously closed out of Sharon's coalition have seized the moment to present their case. Last week, Sharon held a public meeting with members of the major religious parties who have been demanding an investigation into the closing of the ministry. They accused the government of drastically reducing basic services to the Orthodox community and of withholding salaries from religious workers who had been diverted into other government offices.
The rabbis' timing was impeccable. Sharon is painfully aware that he will need some rabbinical support for a withdrawal from the territories and an abandonment of settlements that he and his nationalist religious allies have sponsored for decades. With the religious settlers, whose party holds five seats in Sharon's coalition, ready to leave the government in protest over the withdrawal, the prime minister will probably have to negotiate with the ultra-Orthodox parties, who care less about settling in Palestinian territory than they do about accessing state funds for their own institutions and services.
Indeed, many Israelis believe that any attempt to withdraw without the support of at least one major religious leader will spell social disaster, given the delicate state of religious-secular relations. To avoid outright confrontation, Sharon's only bargaining chip may be to reinstate the religious services abandoned over the past few months, which means that the majority's desire to separate religion and state will once again be compromised.
It's a dilemma that is not new to Israeli political leaders; in fact, defining the Jewish identity of the state has perplexed every government since the state's creation. Israel was born out of the post-Holocaust desire to create a national haven for Jews and to end a history of religious persecution. As my Arab friend reminded me in our conversation in the coffee shop, in a world where anti-Semitism continues to exist, Israelis cannot eliminate Jewish religious identity from their state. That would undermine its very raison d'etre.
For Sharon, with his double-edged policy of being tough on defense and firm on secularization, the dilemma is coming to a head. The irony is that it is the intractable conflict with the Palestinians that is forcing Sharon to reengage with the ultra-Orthodox. It is Israel's enemies, in other words, who are causing Israel to remain Jewish.