Israel seems in many ways to be becoming increasingly religious. A number of religious ministers, most notably Minister of Education Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, have become increasingly outspoken about their aspirations to turn Israel into a religious state and have gained enough power to begin to realize them: Bennett’s creation of a Jewish Identity Administration is one noteworthy example. Religious parties, once on the sidelines, hold more central positions in the government, and it may well be that for the first time an ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi representative — Rabbi Yaacov Litzman, United Torah Judaism — will become a full government minister. Thus one may well ask: Was this what Zionism was meant to be? Was and is Israel destined to become a religious state?

Modern Zionism Was a Secular Movement

The founders of modern Zionism and the state of Israel had no intention of creating a religious state. Zionism was essentially a secular movement created to a large extent as an alternative to religious identity. Theodor Herzl, generally accepted to have been the father of modern Zionism, was not a religious man. His vision was of Israel as a haven for the Jewish people and his seminal book The Jewish State, written in German, was somewhat mistranslated: he entitled it Der Judenstaat — literally, the “State of the Jews,” not the Jewish (certainly not religious) state. In a special chapter warning against theocracy, Herzl wrote:

We shall therefore prevent any theocratic tendencies. We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples in the same way as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks…they must not interfere in the administration of the State which confers distinction upon them, else they will conjure up difficulties within and without.” Furthermore, Herzl adds explicitly, “Every man will be as free and undisturbed in his faith or his disbelief as he is in his nationality. And if it should occur that men of other creeds and different nationalities come to live amongst us, we should accord them honorable protection and equality before the law.1

Herzl declared that the so-called Jewish question was a national question, that the Jews “are a people.”2 Living in Austria before World War I, Herzl, as with most other Zionist ideologues, was influenced by the growing nationalist movements around them; the Zionist movement developed together with other European national movements seeking statehood. The century in which Herzl wrote was that in which the Greeks won independence (1832), the Germans first attempted to form a united German state (1849), Italy was united (1870), and all of Europe became subsumed in nationalist frenzy that eventually deteriorated into World War I. As Avineri wrote:

Zionism, then, is a post-emancipation phenomenon…Pious reiterations of the links of Jews to Palestine do not suffice to explain the emergence of Zionism when it did. Conversely, Zionism is not just a reaction of a people to persecution. It is the quest for self-determination and liberation under the modern conditions of secularization and liberalism.3

Part of the 19th Century Nationalism That Spread through Europe

The origins of Zionism were not part of any sort of religious revival but quite the opposite: Jews in the 19th century began what developed into the Zionist movement as part of a rebellion against religious identity in the context of the nationalist revival that spread all over Europe. Following the emancipation, Jews drifted away from their traditional religious communities and rapidly joined the mainstream of the countries in which they lived. Yet, failing to be accepted and suffering from attacks both individually and as a group — most notably in the forms of massive pogroms such as that in Kishinev in 1903, which shocked leaders and prompted massive rethinking — the secular nationalism that came to be known as Zionism spread among Jewish communities as an alternative to religious identification. Just as the French had France and the Spanish had Spain, the Jews set the goal of creating a national homeland for their people, eventually getting international backing to their aspirations in the form of British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour’s statement. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, coming at a time when the national uprisings all over Europe resulted in the bloodiest and most devastating war as yet experienced, was meant foremost to establish a haven for a people under attack: “His Majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

Most Religious Leaders Opposed Zionism

Moreover, religious leaders came out against the new movement. Although Zion and Jerusalem are mentioned repeatedly in daily prayer, moving to the “Land of Israel” was not actively encouraged by religious leaders and was in many cases discouraged. Establishing a framework to promote the influx of Jews into Israel was viewed as an attempt lidhok et haketz (“to press the end”), to try to force the coming of the messiah — and God’s hand — and thus forbidden. Moreover, religious authorities objected, in varying degrees of vehemence, to the idea of a state: They feared the immigration of secular Jews in areas where traditional Jewish communities already existed and, while supporting the idea of life in the “Land of Israel” as fulfilling a religious calling (a mitzvah), adamantly rejected the creation of a framework (such as a state) that might compete with their authority.

Only after unrelenting attempts by David Ben-Gurion to win their support and promises to guarantee them autonomy did religious groups lend backing to the Zionist leaders. The agreement that Ben-Gurion struck with them in order to elicit their support in the drive for the state was the “status quo” letter of 1947 regarding religious-state relations, which outlined the only four areas in which the religious were to wield power: in regulating the Sabbath, in marriage and divorce, in Kashrut (keeping kosher), and in promising a certain, limited autonomy in religious education that would still “of course, allow the government to set a minimum of required studies”. The dissatisfaction on both sides with this arrangement has stymied the preparation of a constitution ever since; clashes over authority have emerged and re-emerged in a variety of areas including education, women’s rights and conversions.

At the same time, Reform Jews in the United States and elsewhere were initially so virulently opposed to Zionism that they struck mention of Israel from their prayer books. Themselves mostly new immigrants to the U.S., they feared accusations of dual loyalty and portrayed themselves as first and foremost patriotic Americans, with ties to Judaism only secondary and limited only to religious, not nationalist, aspects.

Subsequently, not only did the declaration of the establishment of the state of Israel promise “the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants” but that it would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”. To be sure, today one can easily and cynically decry the gap between the promise and the implementation, yet set and understood in context, it is clear that the Zionist movement was fashioned in earnest as a national movement with all its components, with the goal of establishing a nationstate according to the models of the European countries with which its leaders were familiar. Given the objections by religious groups in the critical years of the founding of the state, the recent attempts by religious forces to overtake not only the national agenda but the nation itself are not only surprising but ironic.

Explaining the Growing Religionization of Israel

How, then, can one explain the growing religionization of Israel? It should certainly be noted that Israel is not the only country with secular roots that has seen a return to religion. Iran, until 1978, seemed to be a rapidly modernizing, westernizing and secularizing state. Ataturk also sought to distance modern Turkey from its religious heritage. Israel’s development is yet another example of the error in anticipating linearity, leaving a variety of explanations that may explain the phenomenon of religious reengagement.

One explanation for the change is demographics: During the first few decades of Jewish migration back into what is today Israel, the majority of Jews — and the vast majority of immigrants — came from Europe. A census in 1930 showed that more than 80% of the Jewish people lived in Europe or the Americas, where post-emancipation communities lived with growing secularism. The Holocaust, which annihilated 30% of the Jewish population, massively changed the makeup of world Jewry. Following World War II and the establishment of the state, immigration tilted to the traditional population of Asia and North Africa and eventually led to political change. Menachem Begin, founder of the Herut and Likud parties, who won the support of Israelis of non-European background, was the first prime minister to bring ultra-Orthodox parties into the government, to pray at the Kotel (Western Wall), to don a kipah (although he wasn’t religious himself), to refer to the Occupied Palestinian Territories according to their biblical names, and to advocate significant concessions to the religious parties.

Some see the move to religion as a backlash. The disparaging and insensitive verbal criticism of people who “kiss amulets” by artist Yair Garbuz at a leftist political rally prior to the last elections was another in a long line of recriminations in the political arena that have added to the growing abyss between left and right and their alignment with secular and religious electorates, respectively. Religious symbols have provided motivation and justification for the encouragement of nationalist, chauvinist goals while the left has taken on the role of condemning religious coercion. The reign of right-wing parties has become increasingly synonymous with a coalition of religious-right power.

The Connection between Neo-Liberalism and the Growth of Religious Power

Another explanation for the religionization is the growth of the neoliberal economic right that also has had a role to play in the strengthening of the religious extremists. Much research of late has investigated the connection between welfare expenditure and religious adherence, with Gill and Lundsgaarde in a large-scale international survey showing:

State welfare spending has a detrimental, albeit unintended, effect on long-term religious participation and overall religiosity…the implications [of their empirical work] is that religious social mobilization and political involvement are more likely in countries with less extensive welfare systems and, conversely, that the expansion of state-sponsored social welfare will diminish, though not eliminate, the role religion will play in politics.4

The large-scale cuts in social services, the education budget, child support payments and benefits for the elderly by the Netanyahu governments and its right-wing predecessors have driven much of the population back into reliance on religious services and religious communities. That is, just as expenditures on welfare and social services has brought about a significant drop in religious adherence and participation all over Europe, so may it well be that cuts in welfare services may have the opposite effect. Overwhelming statistical data shows ties between social spending and religious adherence with the Northern European countries, and most notably Holland, now showing a majority of non-believers. This unwinding of the welfare state — founded on the idea that the state would take on the myriad of responsibilities that religious communities once held (looking after the sick, hungry, orphans, criminals and the like) — has naturally paralleled a growing disgruntlement with the government. Neo-liberal economics have curtailed government services and found eager partners in the religious establishment pleased to regain lost territory.

The Ongoing State of War and Realpolitik

Similarly, and perhaps most importantly, the ongoing state of war between Israel and its neighbors has taken a toll on the once more secular and liberal political culture. Extensive studies comparing religious and secularizing societies has shown that regions in which the quality of life is low tend to be more religious and that nations in which quality of life is higher tend towards secularism. Norris, for example, concludes from a multi-national survey that “rich societies are becoming more secular but the world as a whole is becoming more religious.”5 That Israel has been involved in repeated wars and an ongoing state of national insecurity, regardless of the reasons, doubtless has an effect on the leanings of its citizens and the concomitant frustration with its elected political leadership, suggesting reasons for its turn to alternatives.

Finally, one must note that other broader sociological trends aside, political realpolitik is an often cited explanation for the growing influence of religion in Israel, both in ideology and in practice. In the political arena, parties of the left and right have been so frequently neck and neck that the religious parties, to some extent non-aligned in matters beyond their own interests, have managed to bargain their way into government and promote their agendas on a national scale. Their political sway in being able to tip the scales to the left or right has enabled them to wield power far beyond their relative strength in the general population.

Is Israel Destined to Become More Religious? Maybe Not

What, then, does the future hold? Is Israel destined to become increasingly religious? Despite the wealth of explanations for increasing religious power, there are reasons to argue that the answer is negative.

Having over-extended themselves on a number of fronts, the religious and particularly the ultra-Orthodox, have sparked what may be a reversal of current trends. The heated issue of the draft of yeshiva students, debated in the Knesset, in the Tal, Plessner and Shaked committees as well as in the press, has sparked widespread anger among the majority of the population that serves in the army. The attempts to turn back progress in women’s rights by censoring women, their pictures and their participation in public events as part of promoting the integration of the ultra-Orthodox, has provoked great criticism. The disparities in the education budget, which have recently been shown to overwhelmingly favor religious schools, have been widely criticized. Even such mundane issues as the ongoing ban on transportation on Saturdays is opposed by 74% of the population, according to a recent poll by Ynet.6

Moreover, the attempts to maintain the Orthodox monopoly over religious affairs has created a furor in the Jewish Diaspora and driven a wedge between Israel and its supporters abroad. The strict policies about conversion with which the Israeli government has chosen to entangle itself and adopt are creating a rift with the majority of the Jewish communities abroad which is overwhelmingly not Orthodox. Despite the fact that the latest war has caused a peak in extremist, racist activity — and perhaps out of concern because of it — the percentage of Jewish Israelis that answer in polls that the country’s democratic nature is more important than its Jewish definition has almost doubled since 2010, now standing at almost 34% (those who regard the Jewish character as preferential stands at 39%, but the gap between the two has begun to close. The rest claim that the two are equally important).7

Yet, although the attempts of late to legislate Israel’s identity in contradiction to the principles laid out at its independence have been thus far unsuccessful, they do potentially pose a threat to the fundamentally democratic nature of the state. Furthermore, the growing tendency to draw on religious symbols and interweave religion into national policy is dangerous in that it widens the divide between Israelis of different backgrounds, alienating those who are not Jewish, including the 20% who are Muslim and Christian and the more than 40% who are secular. The idea of building a Third Temple, which is strictly forbidden by Israel’s religious authorities (the Chief Rabbinate), are a threat to one of the most sensitive symbols and the promises to preserve the status quo on the Temple Mount have been far from satisfactory.

When Jerusalem’s mayor defends Israeli settlers moving into Palestinian neighborhoods by claiming that “Jews have the right to live anywhere,” he justifies their actions by religious or ethnic association instead of addressing the national identity of the settlers, which makes their move a violation of international law, and blurs what should be a clear line between religion and state. The tendency to frame the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as religious rather than national is the most potentially dangerous result of growing religious fervor: It transforms the problem into one that is insolvable, with a zero-sum game nature, and transforms it from a local conflict over borders to an international confrontation with worldwide repercussions.

Heading towards an Uncertain Future

Juergensmeyer has written of the danger inherent in “the marriage between those old, competing ideologies of order, religion and secular nationalism, [that] has produced the mutant offspring of contemporary religious politics…the radical accommodation of religion to the ideologies of nationalism and transnationalism may not be good for either religion or political order.” The continuation of this trend poses a problem both to Israel’s international standing and its relations with its neighbors as well as to its citizens and their vision of their own country. While it is clear that Israel was not intended by its founders to be a religious state, it is far less clear just where it is headed today.


Avineri, Shlomo, The Making of Modern Zionism: Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State. New York: Basic Books, 1981, pp. 3-13.
Ben-Porat, Guy. Between State and Synagogue: The Secularization of Contemporary Israel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Fox, Jonathan, 2007. “Do Democracies Have Separation of Religion and State?” Canadian Journal of Political Science, 40:1 (March), pp. 1-25.
Gill, Anthony and Lundsgaarde, Erik. “State Welfare Spending and Religiosity” in Rationality and Society, 2004, vol. 16(4): 399-436.
Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York : Pantheon Books, 2012.
Tamar Herman, The Israel Democracy Index 2014. Jerusalem: The Israel Democracy Institute, 2014.
Herzl, Theodor, The Jewish State (trans. Sylvie d’Avigdor, 1896). New York: Dover Publications, 1988.
Juergensmeyer, Mark, “The Global Rise of Religious Nationalism”, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 2010, 64:3, pp. 262-273.
Journal of International Affairs, 2010, 64:3, pp. 262-273. Neuberger, Benyamin, “Religion and State in Europe and Israel”, Israel Affairs, Vol. 6 (1) 1999, pp. 65-84. 8719560
Norris, Pippa and Ronald Inglehart. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Shimoni, Gideon, The Zionist Ideology. Hanover, N.H.: Brandeis University Press, 1995.
Stepan, Alfred, 2005. “Religion Democracy and the Twin Tolerations,” in Journal of Democracy, 11:4 (October 2005), pp. 37-57.
1 Herzl, Theodor, The Jewish State. New York: Dover Publications, 1988 (trans. Sylvie d’Avigdor, 1896), p. 146. 2 Ibid., p.76. 3 Avineri, Shlomo, The Making of Modern Zionism: Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State (New York: Basic Books, 1981), p.13. 4 Gill, Anthony and Lundsgaarde, Erik. “State Welfare Spending and Religiosity” in Rationality and Society, 2004, vol. 16(4): 399-436, p.401. 5 Norris, Pippa, and Inglehart, Ronald. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. p.. 216-217. 6,7340,L-4647371,00.html 7 Hermann, Tamar.The Democracy Index. The Israel Democracy Institute 2014. il/media/3823043/democracy_index_2014_Eng.pdf, p.25.