Today is Yom Ha’atzmaut, or Israeli Independence Day, commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1948. Israel is 62 years old!
As a part of my school’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations, a friend of mine and I led a workshop on sexism, religion, and separation of church and state in Israel, and I thought that I’d share some of what we talked about here. We talked about what Haredim actually are (very religious Jews, among other things), how they can be exempt from army service in order to study in Yeshiva, and how many believe that Halacha should play an important role in determining secular Israeli law. And not only do they believe that, but they have been able to make it partly a reality, as law in Israel concerning marriage, death, and divorce is completely based on religious law. You can’t get a civil marriage in Israel—only a religious one.
The reason that Haredim have been able to grow in influence because of the coalition system in Israel, in which Prime Ministers need to fill a certain number of seats in the Cabinet order to gain power, and so religious parties are included in the coalition. Shas, the Haredi Sephardic and Mizrachi (Eastern) party in Israel, currently has 11 seats out of 120 in the Knesset, which is Israel’s version of Congress. They hold three Cabinet posts, and their leader, Eli Yishai, is Israel’s Foreign Minister.
Now, because Haredi parties have been able to grow in power, they have been able to influence Israeli politics. Remember when Haredi men threw chairs at women at the Western Wall because it’s illegal for women to read Torah and wear Tefillin in front of the Wall? Remember how there are gender-segregated buses running around Israel because some men don’t want to sit next to women? Although Israel does not have an official religion (surprising, right?), clearly Judaism has a say in influencing Israeli law. Separation of church and state cannot exist when the Israeli government has a Ministry of Religious Affairs that pays for Haredi Yeshivot, educational and social services, and religious research and cultural institutions. The government pays people for studying in Yeshiva all day.
So we asked some questions. What do you do when a group of people that are democratically elected ask for some things that seem undemocratic (blatant sexism, for instance)? Israel, as a democratic country, is assumed to ensure freedom of religion for its people, and Supreme Court judges have been quoted saying so—so how can you have freedom of religion in a country that allows its policies to be shaped by religion? Can a democratic state exist without separation of church and state?
No one really had any definite answers, as these are the kinds of questions that people debate for years. But some people said interesting things—that Israel needs to draw a line between people’s freedom of religion in private areas versus public areas, and that perhaps the Israeli coalition system overall will have to be changed because it requires sacrifices that overly large to be made. Personally, I think that Israel needs to make some changes, because there is growing resentment among the modern, secular community in Israel against the Haredi community that many Israelis feel to be a drain on their society. The coalition system puts the government in quite the bind, but the government needs to draw some lines between respecting Haredi beliefs and maintaining democratic principles in Israel.
Also, did you know that during the War of Independence, women served full combat positions in the IDF? After the war they did not, until many years later, but the War was fought equally by men and women. Happy Birthday, Israel!