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Religion & state in Israel – Part I

Religion and state issues reflect a major rift in the Israeli society. The Zionists vs the Haredi Jews: lets dive into this complicated relationship.

When the momentum of the Zionist movement reached its peak in the first half of the 20th century, non-orthodox Jews were the majority of the new immigrants to Erez–Israel, Palestine. Zionist organizations arranged the majority of immigration to Palestine and demanded immigration certificates from the British Mandate. These institutions were not motivated to apply for certificates for non-Zionists, and definitely not for the Orthodox Jews in Europe. Led by David Ben Gurion, the Zionist organizations aimed to create a secular, liberal, democratic Jewish state. Zionism was a well-oiled machine, hosting summer camps for youth and national and international congresses. It operated immigration agencies and institutions that negotiated with the empires of the time.

Up until the late 19th century, the overwhelming majority of Jews living in Palestine were religious, and depended on external donations from the world’s Jewry for financial support. The majority of this observant community lived in the four Holy Cities: Jerusalem, Hebron, Tzfat and Tiberius. This community became known as the Old Yishuv after the secular Zionist newcomers immigrated and settled on the land. On the eve of the First World War, 60,000 out of a Jewish population of 85,000 were considered Old Yishuv Jews. Some 30 years later, by the mid-1940s, the ratio had flipped.

*Old Yishuv Jews.

A few years of working closely with North Americans has taught me to try, as much as possible, to approach topics like this one with a holistic view.

How can we understand the scope of Israel’s religion and state issues without understanding the narratives of the two main players? Please remember that there are several more opinions to all sides of the argument, which I cannot hope to cover in a blog.

David Green (later to get his Hebrew last name "Ben Gurion") was 14 years old when his dad slapped him in his face because he stopped putting on tefillin. From then on, David slowly formed a new, almost revolutionary attitude to Judaism.

According to his philosophy, the biblical period when Am Israel (the people of Israel) lived in Erez Israel (the Land of Israel), was the golden era of the Jewish people. The bible itself, he believed, was the pinnacle of the creation of a nation. He considered Halachic literature that evolved in later centuries in the diaspora to be a deviation from the original biblical spirt, an attempt to compensate for the absence of a Jewish homeland. A slogan that Ben Gurion often repeated in his speeches was that "Judaism of religion and tradition is Judaism of the Ghetto". Ben Gurion refused to wear a kippah, and married his wife Paula in a civil ceremony in the US. For him, praying was a waste of time. Judaism in a Jewish state is Judaism of labor, science and modernization.

Despite Ben Gurion's firm and almost dictatorial approach, he was profoundly pragmatic and willing to make big sacrifices, even against the opinions of his own party members. Ben Gurion foresaw the complexity of establishing a democratic Jewish state and the multitude of difficulties that would arise: How can Israel be a liberal democracy yet only allow Jews to immigrate to Israel? How does the state determine who is Jewish and who isn't?

*Ben Gurion at Kibbutz Sede Boker.

The largest sect in the Old Yishuv were Hasidic ultra-orthodox Jews who immigrated to Palestine around the 17-18th centuries. In today’s Israel, the various ultra-orthodox communities are all called Haredim. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Haredi communities suffered severely from a personal and collective trauma - they lost the core of their next generation and were deprived of their best teachers, leaders, and rabbis.

However, the reappearance of Haredi society on the historical map after the severe blow it suffered during the Holocaust, is an enigma. The Haredi society that the Zionists met was a weak and fragile community, but in a process of recovery. It's impossible to put them all under one umbrella, since they were divided into many streams, but generally speaking they viewed Zionism as a danger to their community and to the existence of their form of Judaism as a religion. At the same time, tension in Palestine was on the rise, and they understood that some corporation with the Zionists was essential for their survival.

As the tension between the Arabs and the Jews in Palestine deepened, the British were dying (literally) to extricate themselves from the bloody scene. As a result, the United Nations formed a special committee called UNSCOP (United Nations Special Committee on Palestine). The 11-member team toured the land, north to south, met important figures from the various sects, and then devised a solution for the region between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea.

*UNSCOP committee visiting Kibbutz Revivim in the Negev desert.

The Haredim's largest political party which represented the majority of its people in Israel was called "Agudath Israel", originally formed in Poland to represent ultra-orthodox Jews. If this party was initially anti-Zionist in Poland, its branch in Palestine turned to non-Zionist and was willing to compromise once it recognized the great utility of a Jewish state. It is not exactly clear how they felt about the upcoming Jewish state, as they kept silent and showed neither support nor resistance.

Ben Gurion used to compare the creation of the State of Israel to important biblical events like the revelation on Mount Sinai, or the conquest of the land by Joshua. In other words, he viewed himself as a leader present at yet another climax in Jewish history. His greatest fear was that the UN committee would witness a divided Jewish people that would not be able to form a collective national home for all the Jewish people.

In the spring of 1946, with the spirit of a Jewish state in the making, Agudath Israel was willing to compromise by agreeing to support the founding of a state that was not based on Halachic law. However, it demanded some promises from the Zionist institutions on specific topics that they considered crucial for their community, within the secular Jewish state that would be created.

In June 1947, Ben Gurion wrote a letter to Agudath Israel, that later got the nickname of the "Status Quo Letter".

Below is the original letter, which sowed the seeds of discord concerning state vs religion within Israeli society. My next Snippet will investigate how this letter led to the Knesset, in the early days of the State, passing laws regarding religion that, even today, continue to have an impact on the lives of all Israelis.

"Status Quo Letter":



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