WorldWide Religious News

Asia/Pacific - Israel/Palestine - Judaism

Israel's humanists should declare themselves a religious minority
Carlo Strenger ("Haaretz," February 3, 2012)

Jerusalem, Israel - The Israel Democracy Institute has just published a major survey that gives an insight into Israeli society. Its major findings are that an average of 90 percent see Jewish lifecycle rituals as important or very important. Some 87 percent believe food served in public institutions should be kosher, 80 percent believe in God and that good deeds are rewarded, and 67 percent believe that Jews are the chosen people. Some 65 percent believe that the Torah is God Given. Even though only 24% of Israeli Jews are orthodox or ultra-orthodox, Israeli society tends towards religious traditionalism.

Israeli society is less religious than the U.S. Some 85 percent of Americans say that religion is important or very important in their lives. But the U.S. has a constitution that makes sure that religion and the state are strictly separated. Also, the U.S. religious landscape is incredibly varied: even the majority religion, Protestant Christianity, is composed of many different churches. As opposed to Israel, where the orthodox establishment has a monopoly on religious affairs, and is powerfully involved in the lives of citizens from cradle to grave.

It is therefore time for Israeli society to bury a long-lasting myth: the belief that secular, liberal Israelis are the mainstream that in the future will once again own the country. The mirror image of this belief is the program of the current coalition that says that “the secular left has kept the country captive by controlling the political, judicial and cultural elites. Now that we are the majority, we finally want to rule the country according to our values.”

Behind this is a deep confusion in Israeli society about the nature of secularism and liberal democracy. Secularism does not mean that most people are not religious. It means that religion and state are completely separate. Democracy does not simply mean that the majority imposes its views on the rest, but that majority rule is conducted within the constraint that minority rights should be protected.

Israel has never quite understood this. Its history has been guided by the deep-seated assumption that the majority will always crush the minority.

This assumption of course stems from Israel’s early history, in which establishing a Jewish majority was crucial for the Zionist project. And Israel never made the transition towards realizing that a mature state must not crush minorities.

The right and the religious feel that the ruling MAPAI has oppressed them from 1948 to 1977, and they take their revenge on secular liberals whom they mistake for the rulers of yesteryear.

As a result, secular liberals in Israel today get a deal almost as terrible as that of Arabs. We are hated as the ruling elite, even though the right has been in power for the latter half of Israel’s history. Meanwhile, as opposed to religious-nationalists and the ultra-orthodox, we do not have any minority rights. We pay for all others, and we never receive anything for our own needs.

Secular liberals must take a radical step. We should refuse to participate in the perversion of democracy that says that majorities should crush minorities. Like the ultra-orthodox we will stage demonstrations in which we will cry that we are being crushed; like the settlers, we will say that the laws do not really apply to us.

We should declare our religion as humanism and demand the status of a religious minority. Our religious creed does not allow us to oppress another people. Humanists will fight in any war meant to protect the state, but will not participate in the occupation. If national-religious Jews can declare that, they will not evacuate settlements, we can declare that we will not protect them.

We will declare that our religion forbids participation in any ritual or ceremony that does not give equal rights to women and to gays. We will also declare that our religion forbids us to eat animals that have been killed in a way that does not minimize their suffering. If ultra-orthodox soldiers can demand special kashrut even in public institutions, we are entitled to meat that is not kosher.

There will be two options left for the current ruling majority. The first will be to put us all in prison; the second will be to grant us autonomy similar to what Netanyahu wants to grant the Palestinians.

There is, of course, a third option, where the right and the religious come to understand and accept the basics of liberal democracy and respect minority rights. But that sounds like science fiction.