Reflections on Religion and State in Jerusalem

The balance between religion and state is a fragile and delicate one. Contemporary politics has conventionally distanced itself from religion and secularized its institutions, yet there nevertheless are nations where theology plays an important role in the direction of governmental affairs. The challenge for such states comes in the form of simultaneously fulfilling its constitutional legal obligations towards the whole of its population, while at the same time supporting its indigenous ecclesiastical forms. The escalating tensions in Israel renders this increasingly difficult, as the conflict is gradually being transformed into a religious one as well as a politico-historical one. This is arguably one of the results of the controversy around the maintenance of the Temple Mount status quo, as well as the activities of rightist movements within and outside the Knesset.

This question of the relationship between religion and state was the focal point of the third round of Jerusalem Talks held by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Tel Aviv, on December 15, 2014. The participants discussed the difficulty in finding the point of convergence between identity, religion and politics, the sensitivity of the matter lying in the heterogenous population of Israel. The opinions expressed varied greatly between the participants: Adina Bar-Shalom, CEO of the first academic college for Haredi women, MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz), Adv. Dr. Susan Weiss, Executive Director of the Center for Women's Justice, Professor Sari Nusseibeh, former President of Al Quds University, East Jerusalem, Professor Rolf Scheider, Protestant Pastor, Humboldt University, Berlin, and Cilly Kugelmann, Program Director of the Jewish Museum, Berlin.

The theme of the evening was introduced by Kersten Muller, Director of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, Israel, and the discussion was moderated by Judith Schulte-Loh, of German radio, where it was broadcast in its entirety. The goal was to discuss the subject matter through the scope of an Israeli and German lens.

The difference between Germany and Israel

The difference between the two nations was established by the inherent goals of the constitutional legal infrastructure of each society. Whilst Professor Schieder claimed that religious diversity was the objective of the German government as a civil actor, it was noted by Bar-Shalom that Israel should espouse more theological means of governing the country. Yet the latter statement was questioned by Kugelmann, who argued that the goal of Israel's first prime minister Ben Gurion was to establish an essentially secular society. Thus two narratives were proposed within this process of self-identification, one based on the values of the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the other on the interrelationship between society and religion. It was suggested by a number of the panelists that religion was becoming a source of national identity due to the failure of a state to provide adequate means of national characteristics. This reasoning is arguably problematic, as its logical conclusion stipulates that religion only becomes imperative for the self-identification process if the state fails to do so, and consequently undermines the argument of Bar-Shalom.

The above discussion is based on the assumption that religion should play a part in state affairs, which was adamantly opposed by Zandberg and Weiss. The former argued that the relationship between religion and state is static in nature, only artificially developed by distorting historical events. This originates in the limited and exclusively Orthodox form of religion espoused by Israeli politicians, leading to the rejection of Reform and Conservative Judaism which is non-sensical according to Zandberg, since they represent a significant segment of Jews around the world. Furthermore, the religious characteristic of policy matters distracts from the core of the problems, which is particularly so in regards to environmental matters. The ban on public transport during the shabbat is justified by religious arguments, yet it would be more convincing if it stemmed from a concern over environmental issues as it would not antagonize people of differing beliefs.

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MK Zandberg (left) and Dr. Weiss opposed the exaggerated role played by religion

This argument was developed further by Weiss contending that the enforcement of religious laws inevitably compromises human rights and democratic institutions. The state as a civil actor should only be concerned with buttressing religious freedom, rather than projecting certain religious beliefs that segregate and separate the inhabitants of Israel. She referenced the German constitution to support her claim, stating that politics takes precedence over religion in all matters. However, this clear demarcation of two societal spheres would invite institutional difficulties, especially considering that certain politicians argue that the Torah and human rights are compatible, as Bar-Shalom put forth.

The Jewish Nation-State Law controversy

Critique against such a viewpoint is understandable, as expressed by both Zandberg and Nusseibeh in regards to the recent proposal by Prime Minister Netanyahu,. The proposal to define Israel as a Jewish state rather than a democratic one overrides universal notions of human rights, whilst formally creating an unequal basis for the inhabitants of the country. This was a particularly controversial topic during the conference, both because of its contemporary significance and its potential to substantially change the constitutional make-up of Israel. The sensitivity of the matter is further represented by the parliamentary instability the Knesset is currently undergoing. The recent dismissal of two ministers ostensibly due to their opposition to Netanyahu's proposal alludes to a precarious balance of power domestically, and is augmented by the increasingly tense situation between Palestinians and Israelis.

Reforms and Concerns

Bar-Shalom was a voice for significant reform within the conservative ultra-Orthodox Haredi community in Israel, seeking ways to empower women within that segment of society, and seeking ways for accommodation between religious values and the secular part of Israeli society. She differentiated her approach from the right-wing national religious Jews in Israel when she said that unlike the national religious, the Haredim believe that "human beings are more sacred than land."

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Adina Bar-Shalom: "Human beings are more sacred than land".

Prof. Nusseibeh looked at the developments and conflicts within Israeli society from the perspective of the outsider Palestinians, under occupation, who are deeply affected by what is going on within Israeli society. He expressed great concern about the trend towards greatly religious domination within Israel. At the same time, he also expressed great concern about some of the extreme religious trends within Palestinian and Muslim society in general, which he defined as "scary".

photo credit: Flash90

Prof. Nusseibeh expressed concern about "scary" phenoma in both Israeli and general Muslim society.

Whilst a significant segment of politically active citizens in Israel are adamant about alleviating the destabilizing effects of the aforementioned political moves, the polarization of all societal levels constitutes a significant obstacle. It only remains to be said that the political obligations of Israel should be prioritized over any religious responsibilities, in order to fulfill the its role as solely a secular civil actor.

Photos by Ina Fuchs

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