A complex relationship between religion and politics is inherent in Israel’s character as a Jewish state. The term Jewish denotes both a religion and an ethnicity, and, for the past seventy years, Israel’s leaders have had to deal with a host of issues regarding religion’s role in the life and politics of the Jewish state.
The complexity of these issues was one of the difficulties that deterred Israel’s founding fathers from drafting a constitution for the young state. What would have been difficult in 1948 or 1949 became impossible in later years. The Declaration of Independence and a series of basic laws serve as a substitute of sorts.
The Declaration of Independence refers to Israel as a Jewish State but does not quite explain what the term means. The Basic Laws that were passed years later under the influence of the Supreme Court, defined Israel as “Jewish and Democratic”, thus striking a balance between the Jewish identity of the state and the rights of the Arab and other minorities.
In practice, secular and orthodox Jews gradually established a modus vivendi called “the status quo”. The Zionist movement represented an essentially secular, radical departure from orthodox belief that the return to Zion should be a divine act, not the product of human action. As of the 1930s and until 1977 the Jewish community in Palestine and the State of Israel were dominated by Labor Zionism. But the socialist secular leadership, aware of the need to accommodate a 20 percent Orthodox Israeli Jews and of religion’s place in Jewish and Israeli identity were willing to compromise.
That compromise placed matters of personal status and family law with religious courts (Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze), subjected the definition of “who is a Jew” to Jewish law, turned the Rabbinate into a state agency, allowed the creation of parallel religious school systems and exempted religious scholars from military service. The Orthodox stream of Judaism was given a monopoly in Israel (at the expense of Reform and Conservative Judaism) and religion was allowed to affect (but not monopolize) the public space: thus no public transportation on the Sabbath.
More important, religious parties came to play a prominent role in Israeli politics. The two main streams of Orthodox Judaism - the Orthodox Zionists and the Ultra-Orthodox - were represented in the political arena through parties, and these parties have exerted influence by being essential partners in government coalitions. While the religious Zionist parties were conventional parties, the Ultra-Orthodox parties were subject to clerical authority.
Over the past 50 years, fundamental changes to this system have taken place. Most important has been the transformation of the national religious sector by Israel’s spectacular military victory in 1967. The rapid transition from the crisis of May 1967 to the military exploits of June and the conquest (or liberation) of the West Bank transformed religious Zionism from a moderate dovish camp in the context of the Israeli political spectrum into an ultra-nationalist entity.
Led by radical rabbis and by its own young guard, the National Religious Party adopted a new vision and a new mission. If Labor Zionism led the first phase of the Zionist revolution and founded the Jewish State, it was now religious Zionism’s turn to take charge and direct the second phase, the essence of which would entail keeping and settling Judea and Samaria (the Biblical term for the West Bank). Attachment to the Land of Israel became a religious tenet. There were also secular advocates of Israeli control or annexation of the West Bank or parts of it (as a national security issue), but the core of the movement to settle and keep the West Bank was The Block of the Faithful, an offshoot of the young guard of the National Religious Party.
These trends were reinforced in 1977 by the electoral victory of the Likud, the right-wing block headed by Menachem Begin. Labor Zionism’s hegemony was broken, as was “the historic alliance” between the Labor Party and the National Religious Party. The latter joined Begin’s coalition and has remained an ally of the Likud ever since.
Begin’s success and that of his party in most Israeli elections since 1977 derived, to a large extent, from its appeal to two constituencies: The orthodox and the Sephardi (Jews of Middle Eastern descent). Begin himself was the epitome of an East European Israeli Jew, but he excelled in projecting attachment to Jewish tradition and in portraying himself to Middle Eastern Jews as another victim of the Labor Movement’s establishment. This new alliance between the secular right wing and the religious Right (and, in time, the ultra-orthodox) is an important key to understanding the right wing’s hegemony in Israeli politics since 1977.
The religious dimension of the attachment to the Land of Israel played a particularly prominent role during the campaign against the Oslo Accords during the years 1993-1995. The campaign included a broad right-wing coalition, but its cutting edge was the Settler Movement and its supporters. Led by a group of radical rabbis, the settlers depicted Prime Minister Rabin and his government as traitors, and religious opinions circulated, according to which Rabin was punishable by death. The assassin who killed Rabin in November 1995 stated during his interrogation that he would not have acted without explicit religious sanctions.
Rabin’s assassination produced a crisis in the ranks of religious Zionism and its political organ, the National Religious Party. But the crisis was only temporary. The party was reconstituted under the name The Jewish Home. That party, which has served as the political arm of the Settler Movement and as a partner in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, is promoting a broader agenda seeking to reshape Israel’s legal and educational systems. It is important to bear in mind that a percentage of senior and mid-level officers in the elite units of the IDF are affiliated with the religious Zionists. The role that had been played in past decades by the Kibbutz Movement is now played by religious Zionism. So far, this has not had major political repercussions but the prospect of religious Zionist officers refusing to evacuate settlements hovers over Israeli politics.
During the past few decades, the ultra-orthodox community has gone through a different set of changes. The most important one is demographic. Currently, the ultra-orthodox constitute close to 10 percent of Israel’s population. But given the higher birth rate in its ranks, that percentage - and the community's electoral weight - will go up in the coming years. The traditional landscape of ultra-orthodox parties dominated by East European rabbis changed in the 1980s with the formation of Shass - a party representing orthodox and traditional Jews of Middle Eastern (mostly North African) descent. The party reached a high point in the 1999 parliamentary elections when it obtained 17 out 120 seats in the Knesset - it has since lost some of its original appeal and has been riven by dissension. It holds 7 seats in the current Knesset, and it is part of Netanyahu’s coalition.
Over the years, the ultra-orthodox community, nominally still non-Zionist, has become much more nationalistic, but its agenda is focused on other issues: protecting its educational system, recruiting resources, housing, and fighting over the identity of Israel’s public space. Its conflict with the secular parties and oftentimes with the government itself concerns issues such as the application of military service to its young men, observing the Sabbath in the public space, and opening its educational system to what is known in the Israeli parlance as “core studies” (Math and English). Their pressure has generated counter-pressure by a number of Israeli political parties that have identified themselves as opponents of “religious compulsion”.
Among Israel’s Arab minority a similar debate has taken place over the years between Islamists who advocate a prominent role for Islam in the life and politics in the Arab minority, and others who are either Palestinian-Arab nationalist or Marxist. During the last two decades of the previous century, the Islamic Movement enjoyed a heyday, but during the last few years its influence has declined. and the politics of the Arab sector are currently dominated by secular nationalists.
Israel is currently dominated by a right wing coalition of which the ultra-orthodox and the Jewish Home are an important part. This enables both strands of Jewish orthodoxy to promote their agendas, but the most important consequence of the governing coalition’s character is Israel’s drift in a more nationalistic direction. This has been manifested most clearly by the passing of the Nationality Basic Law in July 2018. The law reinforces Israel’s character as a Jewish state, not in the religious sense, but in the ethnic-nationalist one. It offers a stronger definition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish People and changes the balance between Jewish and democratic core principles that had been built in earlier decades.