Many point to the separation of “Church” (read: religion) and State as the cornerstone of modern Western democracy. Some in Israel are looking for a way to reunite the two while remaining democratic.
Separation of religion and state is often misinterpreted in today’s political discourse. The fathers of modern democracy, at least the American brand, were deeply religious men whose political policies were informed by their biblical faith. What they advocated was not freedom from religion, but freedom of religion.
In other words, that state (government) would not tell people how to worship or relate to God by endorsing or aligning itself with a particular religion or denomination. But there was every intention that faith in God would play a foundational role in politics. Just look at the wording of the US Constitution.
It seems that the founding fathers of the State of Israel, secular as they were, had a similar intention. Israel’s Declaration of Independence openly appeals to divine promises as conveyed by the biblical prophets.
One small religious party in Israel’s current governing coalition wants to go a step further and in effect do away with the coveted separation of religion and state.
Noam party leader Avi Maoz quit his post as a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office earlier this year in protest over certain coalition agreements not being executed.
But last week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the immediate implementation of one of Maoz’s demands: Government forms will again ask for an applicant’s “Father” and “Mother,” rather than “Person 1” and “Person 2.”
Now there is concern in Israel’s left-leaning media that in re-embracing Maoz, Netanyahu intends to implement the rest of their coalition agreement, which includes a reported 50 million shekels to establish an official office for the Chief Rabbinate within the government compound.
The wording of the agreement is somewhat vague, but the Noam party’s website clearly states:
“Noam promotes laws and government activity at various levels aimed at strengthening the [state’s] Jewish identity and halting radical progressivism that has infiltrated governing bodies. Among other things, it was agreed within the framework of the agreements for the establishment of the government that an official office for the Chief Rabbinate would be established within the government complex. This would be done in order to strengthen the position of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel as the fourth branch of government, responsible for the Jewish identity of the nation…”
Israel is the Jewish state, and that means an inextricable connection to Judaism. Though there is much debate over which version or stream of Judaism should hold sway. Former Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana introduced reforms to loosen the hold of Orthodox Judaism over the Rabbinate, though the general public, even those classified as “secular,” tends to still defer on religious matters to the Orthodox over Conservative and Reform streams of Judaism.
But regardless of which Judaism takes the lead, the question remains if an official religion has any place in a modern democracy. And more to the point, if the Jewish state of Israel can avoid it. It increasingly seems that Israel can be either democratic or Jewish, but not fully both.
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