Review: The Case For A Secular New Jerusalem

Published in CDN on Jan 31, 2015

by Allan C. Brownfeld

Although Israel refers to itself as a “democracy,” that term does not necessarily mean that there is genuine religious freedom in the country. There is certainly no separation of church and state. Instead, Israel is a theocracy, with an established religion, which is Orthodox Judaism. As an example, reform and Conservative rabbis have no right to conduct weddings, funerals or conversions.

According to Hiddush, an Israeli group working toward religious pluralism, Israel is among 45 nations with “severe restrictions” on marriage; most of the others are governed by Islamic law.

In 1953, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed legislation that placed all matters of marriage and divorce for Jews in Israel under the jurisdiction of rabbinic courts. Religious leaders became civil servants. Religious court verdicts, like civil ones, are implemented and enforced by the police, bailiff’s office, and other law-enforcement agencies.

In an important book, “The Case For A Secular New Jerusalem,” which is part memoir and part plea for an Israeli society with genuine religious freedom and pluralism, Ofra Yeshua-Lyth tells both her own story and that of contemporary Israel. Yeshua-Lyth is a veteran Israeli journalist and author and served as a foreign correspondent for the Israeli newspaper MAARIV in the U.S. and Germany.

The author recalls that,

“I had to drop the fantasy of becoming a ballerina at a relatively early age, having realized that I was not properly designed to dance for my living. It took much longer to realize that the image I had of the wonderful, earnestly hardworking Jewish state I grew up in was also a product of wishful thinking and grand desires, based on faulty architecture. In the 1950s and 1960s, thoroughly dipped in innocence and devotion, nobody had any reason to worry that by its very definition of being the Only Jewish State in the World, the State of Israel was doomed to be serving aims that have little or nothing to do with welfare of most of its inhabitants. We had a rich national folklore, we had venerable traditions; it was not to be expected that a few anachronisms in this tradition would so soon be leading to a dead end.”

Even some of the early Zionist leaders did not anticipate the direction Israel would take. In Theodor Herzl’s original formulation of a Jewish state, he envisioned equal rights for all of its citizens, regardless of their faith. And in his imagined state, the rabbis would have no political power whatever.

The State of Israel that has emerged is quite different from what Herzl thought he was in the process of creating. It was Herzl’s view that Jews and the indigenous Arab population would live peacefully together in a well-integrated society.

“Instead,” writes Yeshua-Lyth, “in Israel today one would not find a single affluent, well-educated Arab who had integrated well into the local Jewish elite. The reasons for this have nothing to do with Herzl’s colonialist vision and everything to do with the serious deviations from its original layout. Reading ‘Altneuland’ today, one is struck by the adequacy of its economic and technological predictions, compared to the seeming irrelevance of its social and political vision. ..Herzl spoke out unequivocally against any religious meddling in the affairs of the state…He clearly foresaw the risk that certain Zionist leaders might be attracted to a national religious ideology that he was not prepared to tolerate. But he could not guess that this, eventually, would become the winning ideology in the Jewish state.”

Herzl had no intention of letting the rules of the Eastern European ghetto be involved in the running of his future Jewish state. He wrote: “We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples in the same way as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of its barracks…They must not interfere in the administration of the state…And if it should occur that men of other creeds and different nationalities come to live amongst us, we should afford them honorable protection and equality before the law.”

While Herzl is hailed in contemporary Israel, his vision has been rejected by those who have been in control of the State of Israel since its creation in 1948. In this regard, the author writes:

“No priests interfering in the administration of the state? No professional soldiers allowed out of the barracks? No wonder that ‘men of other creeds and different nationalities’ are unable to be accorded ‘honorable protection and equality before the law.’ Religion and the military are the predominant forces of Israeli politics and society. Together they devour the lion’s share of the country’s resources…It would have been inconceivable to Herzl that rabbis should have sovereign status in the bureaucracy of the state, and that an enormous religious-political establishment should openly and successfully oppose the very idea that non-Jews might become citizens with equal rights.”

Despite the fact that the majority of Israelis do not consider themselves Orthodox and secular political movements have emerged calling for an end to the domination of civic life by state-employed Orthodox rabbis, this has not changed the reality that, as Yeshua-Lyth explains,

“Our country is the only so-called Western-style place where one may not become legally married without religious certification. Interdenominational marriages are therefore impossible…Cyprus and Tuscany are the most popular destinations for the growing number—some say 20 per cent—of Jewish Israeli couples (and obviously all mixed couples) wishing to or having to be legally wed without a rabbi officiating.”

For thousands of Israelis, marriage abroad is the only way to institutionalize their relations, due to a variety of religious taboos.

“For a start,” the author points out, “non-Jews may not marry a Jew. A Jewish man may not marry a divorcee or a convert if his name is Cohen or Kaplan, or any other derivative of the tribal name of Jewish priests. Nobody is to be married if his or her father is not the man his or her mother had been married to at the the time of his or her conception…The marital laws of the State of Israel make a maze of unintelligible instructions that would be mildly amusing if not for the hassle and real pain they inflict on so many innocent people.”

Ironically, in the author’s view, Orthodox Judaism and Islam have a great deal in common, particularly when it comes to the treatment of women:

“Islam, very much like Judaism, considers itself a religion of charity and mercy, but is entrenched in a staunch masculine hierarchy. Both religions force a very strict modesty code on women, dictating dress instructions that should neutralize sexual provocation that they are supposed to embody. In both religions, women may not be actively involved in public prayer, or any other form of worship except within the home environment, while serving husbands and other family members. Mosques are men-only areas, while the synagogues have special alcoves to keep women concealed.”

Russian immigrants to Israel have reinforced the country’s right-wing politics.

“These newcomers,” writes Yeshua-Lyth, “have developed a political frame of mind fervently supporting the occupation and passionately hating the ‘Arabs.’ In heavy Russian accents, they recite the worn-out mantras about our ‘rights over the country’…Never mind that so many of them have nothing to do with Judaism, except sometimes having a grandmother who married a Jew many years ago and forgot about it until it was discovered to be a key to a better socio-economic future for her all-Russian or Moldavian grandchildren…At the roadblocks that make their lives miserable in the occupied territories, our Palestinian cousins often come across Russian-speaking Israeli soldiers who find it hard to follow their own fluent Hebrew.”

Yeshua-Lyth tells her readers,

“Religious and cultural communities, just like bird flocks, need no state laws to preserve their unique heritages. Jewish preservation of the last 2,000 years is the best proof. Driving out three quarters of a million people who were not Jewish to make for a Jews-only land was at best a mistake…In this small area blessed by God as a meeting of three continents, some of our ancestors managed to launch useful social paradigms and produce truly sublime texts. The whole of humanity took notice…They have little or nothing to do with the present, weird, flawed, political-religious regime…”

This book is an eloquent plea that Israel separate religion from state and move toward becoming a genuinely democratic society. It comes from one who loves her country, but wants it to become the kind of society in which she can truly take pride.