Freedom of religion in Israel: the bottom line

Freedom of religion in Israel: the bottom line

Recently a U.S. State Department report that examined degrees of freedom of religion around the world put Israel at the bottom of the democratic states’ list. According to the report, Israel treats other religions and certain Jewish currents unequally and often with disrespect. According to the report, Israel has failed in every parameter of equality, liberty, and openness toward a variety of religious currents.

Reality as reflected in this report requires that we boldly examine where we came from and where we are headed.

The State of Israel was established by many groups that were identified with various religious and secular currents and that often clashed over the wishes each of them had over applying their views to the entire state. Israel’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, proclaimed pluralistic equality when it declared that the State of Israel “will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.”

Yet, this vision had enemies from day one. Ironically, one of the declaration signatories, the late Minister David Tzvi Pinkas, fought against traffic on the Sabbath, and anti-religious radicals attempted to assassinate him. This example goes to show that brute force and intolerance come from every direction.

Over the years, however, a certain religious current assumed hegemony over religious issues in the State of Israel, even though it does not represent the majority of its citizens and is even rejected by certain parts of the Orthodox community. The Orthodox hegemony determines that there is only one way to be Jewish, to marry, to divorce, be buried, to convert, and to give meaning to the vision of the Jewish state. This monolithic approach confuses unity and uniformity and alienates many groups from the Jewish tradition. It is far from reflecting the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, of world Jewry, and of the wide diversity of Jewish views and expressions that exist in the 21st century.

The hegemony exacerbated tensions within Israeli society and helped mutual disrespect — which has become increasingly typical of the Israeli way of life today — take deeper root. Additionally, it contributes to the further alienation between the State of Israel and the world’s Jews, most of whom live in pluralist societies.

It is hard to overstate the threat this poses to the State of Israel’s inner strength and stability. The State Department’s report is just a warning light, showing sincere, friendly concern. It should be viewed as a signal from a faraway friend relating the grave state we are in. If we wish to continue existing as a state that belongs in the realm of open and democratic nations, while offering a supportive and welcoming home for the various religious currents that exist inside it, the State of Israel must seriously address the severe consequences of the status quo in the realm of religion and state.

A significant movement that promotes religious pluralism is evolving in civilian society here. It is challenging the recurring attempts to further anchor the hegemony of the old religious establishment. Furthermore, that movement offers a vision of hope and of a different kind of relationship between the various religious and secular groups in Israeli society. This pluralist, civilian movement shows its power by continuously creating alternatives for weddings and other rituals and for Jewish identity as a whole.

Expanding further, these alternatives will eventually shed a ridiculous light on the current uniform religious hegemony. Only then will Israel be taken off the list of countries where freedom of religion and conscience is restricted.

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