Jewish and/or Democratic? Israel's Unsolved Identity

Interview with Uri Keidar, Executive Director of Israel Hofsheet, on the impact of state and religion tensions on the upcoming elections
Jewish and/or Democratic? Israel's Unsolved Identity
Executive Director of Israel Hofsheet (Be Free Israel)Guy Gilad

In less than two days (17.9.2019) Israel is voting, for the second time in less than 6 month. An unprecedented situation - even for Israel, where government coalitions frequently do not reach the end of its term.  What caused the fall of the last government coalition, as well as what made the coalition talks fail after the elections, was a dispute over a legislation settling the recruiting of ultra-Orthodox to the military service. The rift between secular and religious camps in Israel has been present since the foundation of the State but it is just recently that state and religion issues seem to play a more decisive role in the voters’ decision in local and nationwide elections.

We talked to Uri Keidar, executive director of Israel Hofsheet (Be Free Israel) about this development and its possible impact on the upcoming elections. Israel Hofsheet ( is a long-standing partner of FNF Jerusalem, promoting individual and religious freedom and an open and pluralistic society in Israel.

For those who are less familiar with the topic, could you briefly outline the special characteristics of the relation between state and religion in Israel?

Uri Keidar: The basic idea is that Israel was founded as a Jewish and democratic country, in which religious institutions (not only Jewish institutions, by the way) have extremely powerful authorities, which includes a monopoly over marriage and divorce, conversion to Judaism, authorizing Kashrut (Jewish food related guidelines) and burial. All of that is true also for Muslims, Christians etc. who are Israeli citizens, in which case there’s religious courts according to each religion. We’re probably the only Western democracy in which religious courts exist as a governmental institution. With that being the case issues of the tension between the Jewish character and the democratic character of the country play a major role in our politics, and this elections are even more tense than ever in that field.

2 The last government coalition came to an earlier end due to a dispute over a recruitment law for ultra-Orthodox men. How important is this equal drafting to the mainstream Israeli and which other aspects of the so called “status quo” of state and religion in Israel arouse in particular the resentment of the secular population and might play a role in the upcoming elections?

Uri Keidar: As we have a mandatory draft to the Israeli army, and as a country that still needs to defend itself on a daily basis, one can imagine that allowing a big segment of the society not to take part in that effort would become a big political debate, and it is for the last two decades, maybe even more. I would argue, however, that other issues are not less controversial, such as the lack of civil marriage and lack of public transportation on Shabbat (Saturday). As the agendas described above include mainly “high level” political discussions, we also see that the biggest Secular public protest in recent years was around the threat to close grocery stores on Shabbat, which might suggest that for some people, issues that have a much more daily scope will be more influential than the “big” issues. As a parent, I can certainly get it why people march the streets if their ability to buy diapers on a specific day would be under a threat…

The public discourse over state and religion issues is heating up in recent years and more young people e.g. choose to marry in alternative ways and not according the traditional way through the religious authorities. However, experience tells that for many Israelis on the day of election everything boils down to the cardinal question of how the party is positioned regarding to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Do you see any reason to believe that this voter pattern will change in the upcoming elections?

Uri Keidar: I think it might, mainly due to the fact that this issue was so focal for this entire election cycle, which hasn’t happened before. While as a country that constantly needs to consider security threats as part of the daily discourse it surely dominates the political agenda, this is the first time in a while that issues of religion and state remain as a top-tier topic for so long, and that many parties are using that scope to describe their vision for Israel.

Other than in the nationwide elections, issues of state and religion are taking the centre stage in the local elections. Israel Hofsheet conducted a "Local Religious Freedom Index" in the last local elections in autumn 2018, which highlighted the degree of individual and religious freedom in the different cities and districts. Can you tell us more about this Freedom Index? And whether you think the local phenomenon will eventually have a spill over effect also on to the national level?

Uri Keidar: As we understood that municipalities have a lot of policy areas in which they’re able to promote freedom without dependence on the Government, we launched the index to show which cities do that and which do not. We did our best to measure only issues that cities control, thus making it more obvious what decisions are taken on the local level that are in line with our values, that are the values a majority of Israelis support. We ranked the 24 biggest cities in Israel, while using indicators that show if they are promoting more or less freedom. You can read about it here- One of the things we’re seeing the biggest change in is public transportation on Shabbat, where we saw a huge spike in the number of cities that now promote that service on their own. I think that the biggest impact it has on the national level is that it shows the enormous support those services get from the public, and national level politicians then see that it would be helpful for them to also support it.

Many inside and outside of Israel query the compatibility of the Jewish and democratic character, which the State of Israel claims for itself. How do you see this as someone who advocates for a separation of state and religion? Can Israel be Jewish and democratic at the same time?

Uri Keidar: I think that the more accurate term is separating the religion from politics, as many Israelis, us included, do believe in the concept of being both Jewish and democratic. I see the Jewish and democratic character of the state as a great concept, which we should keep while also securing the rights of all of our citizens. With the vast majority of Israelis being Jewish, I don’t see any contradiction between the two, and as we believe that the public sphere should be pluralistic and liberal, we don’t see any problem with supporting public religious services if done through pluralistic lenses, and with the public sphere being influenced by Judaism, as long as it’s done in a way that is not offensive towards minorities from one hand, and while using the broadest notion of Judaism possible, not a narrow one.

Knowing that Jewish identity includes more than religion but also refers to Jewish culture, history and ethnicity and nationhood; do you see a separation as feasible at all and if yes, which model of state and religion seems to you most appropriate for Israel?

Uri Keidar: Looking at the developments, we are seeing that separation is happening more and more as time goes by. Israelis progress towards our own model of the relations between religion and state. In this constellation there will not be a clear cut between state and religion like is the case in other models, but rather a more complex model. This model includes Jewish characteristics being a main part of the public sphere and Jewish holidays part of the national calendar, while having civil marriage, public transportation on Shabbat, full equality for the LGBT community and other progressive policies that we see in other countries. I also believe that the Law of Return, enabling Jews to get Israeli citizenship as the main frame of naturalization should stay as it is. I think we are moving towards a much more liberal public sphere, while also learning more about the feasible options for Israel. As a rather young nation state, we are still in the process. A lot to learn here but I think we are in the right direction.

Jewish and/or Democratic? Israel's Unsolved Identity
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