Israel: Secularizing, But Not Secular

April, 15 2013

About 15 years ago, the late writer and journalist Israel Segal, who left the ultra-Orthodox world at a young age, provided a pessimistic account of a secular defeat in a culture war: “In my view, the full-scale war has already ended in defeat for the secular people. . . . [W]e are living under a regime of occupation imposed by a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) minority and this occupation is growing more intensive”. For many secularists like Segal, and for good reasons, secularization seems remote from Israeli reality. The entrenched Orthodox monopoly over significant aspects of public and private lives, the discrimination against non-Orthodox Jewish groups, inequality of women are just a few significant reasons to doubt the possibly of secularization in Israel. Secularists remain a minority and surveys indicates that more Jewish Israelis described themselves as “religious” or “very religious” than they did 10 years ago. Fewer, meanwhile, describe themselves as “secular.”

The picture, however, as I suggest in my new book, is more complex as Israel is undergoing a secularization process, but is not becoming secular, or more liberal. Sociologists have been debating for decades, in Israel and elsewhere, what exactly secularization entails. If previously it was associated with a linear process (or, progress) that would end with the disappearance of religion or its removal from the public to the private realm, in recent years more nuanced interpretations are provided. The American sociologist Mark Chaves suggests that secularization is a process in which religious authority declines, not religiosity measured by individual levels of religious belief and practices. To this we can add that secularization is underpinned by both ideological and non-ideological forces; it weakens but does not diminish the presence of religion in public life, and, consequently, is significant but partial in its effects.

Religious authority in Israel was institutionalized in early statehood in tacit agreements between the religious and secular often referred to as the “status quo.” The status quo arrangements were designed to ensure the cooperation of the religious community in the pre-state and early statehood period and included measures that had an increasingly significant effect on the everyday life of all Jewish citizens, religious and secular. The agreements, some formalized into explicit laws, had a direct effect on the lives of secular Jews. The designation of Saturday, the Sabbath, as the day of rest, with the mandatory closing of stores and public services, the required observance of Jewish dietary rules (kashrut) in public institutions and the Orthodox monopoly over burial, marriage and divorce were all part of the agreements, and all became points of contention between religious and secular Israeli Jews.

The expansion of commerce on the Sabbath, a thriving non-kosher culinary culture, marriages performed outside the Orthodox rabbinate, civil burials and even an annual lively gay pride parade,  all relatively new developments, allude that religious hold on public and private life may be changing. What is unique about these developments, and explains why they remained under the radars of social scientists is, first, the fact they are not necessarily related to a secular ideology; second, they occur alongside a religious resurgence and, third, they advance outside of formal political processes. These developments in aggregate fall far short of religious freedom or a liberal order, but since the early 1990s secular Israelis have gained new freedoms and choices that defy religious authority.

How did all this happen? Scholars of the politics of religion in Israel have tended to study secularization either as an ideology related to a belief in personal freedoms and separation of church and state, or, in political struggles underpinned by a secular ideology.  Until the mid-1980’s the majority of secular struggles were led by individuals and groups that described themselves as secular and fought to change the rules of the game, from civil marriage to the opening of cinemas on the Sabbath. Two important developments occurred in the mid-1980s: first, Israel became a consumer society emulating western life-style and, second, the collapse of the Soviet Union brought one million immigrants to Israel, the majority of them secular and a large number not Jewish by Orthodox standards.

The secularization process that took-off in the 1990s was composed of different groups with different goals and agendas, not only the hard-core that identified itself as secular and often actively struggled against the Orthodox monopoly but also non-Orthodox Jews who demand recognition. This included more traditional Reform and Conservative congregations, many comprised of American immigrants, who attempted to strike roots among veteran Israelis and demanded recognition by the state that would allow, for example, Reform rabbis to perform marriage ceremonies. The rebellion against religious authority was also part of a newer trend that can be described as “secular Judaism.” It is difficult to characterize this trend, which was influenced by the New-Age orientations, the search for a Jewish identity and by the hope for a religious-secular dialogue, especially in the aftermath of Rabin’s assassination in 1995.  These groups frequently insist on distinguishing themselves from the Reform Jews, which they associate with immigrants from English-speaking countries, and prefer to define themselves as a deeply rooted Israeli development. For many of those who associate with secular Judaism, belonging includes the right for appropriation and re-interpretation of scriptures and the adoption of Jewish rituals to modern life and to universal values.

The major development, however, was not the identity searches and ideological-political confrontations but the changes of everyday life related to demographic and economic changes. The one million immigrants that arrived in Israel between 1989 and 2000 from the former Soviet Union (FSU) were not only secular but, due to intermarriage, about one-fourth of them did not meet the religious criteria of Jewishness. The sheer scale of this immigration produced a critical mass of demand for Russian culture and imported products, including non-kosher food. More important were the difficulties for the immigrants not recognized as Jews that, among other things, could not marry in Israel. Immigrants from the FSU contributed to secularization, but it was developed separately from veteran Israelis for two main reasons. First, the political orientation of the immigrants was different from the more liberal political stance of most secular veterans. And, second, FSU immigrant tended to prefer practical solutions rather than for a struggle for comprehensive political change.

The widest change, crossing ethnic and class boundaries, was the rise of a consumer society, often described in terms of “globalization” or “Americanization”. The modest collectivist ethos of early statehood gave way in the 1980, due to economic growth and liberal economic policies, to hedonism. New lifestyles rendered the restrictive arrangements of the status quo difficult to maintain. Shopping malls and large stores offered a variety of commodities and a new shopping experience. The new individual ethos of self-fulfillment and quest for good life included new desires for experiences and new leisure patterns were often incompatible with the religious restrictions of the status quo. Many Israelis were ready to transgress the restrictions they no longer saw fitting, whether it was shopping on Sabbath or tasting non-kosher foods.

Secularization forces, old and new, have combined to challenge religious authority but were limited in their ability to formally change the rules of the game. To begin with, Israeli secularism has always been ambivalent in relation to religion. Zionism could lend religion it its own interpretation but never completely detach itself as it continued to be directed by powerful religious structures. It continued to play a part in national life as many Israelis, including secular ones, recognized religion as the underlying foundation of belonging and solidarity and a gatekeeper of national boundaries. Second, secularization forces were countered by new religious forces that prevented change and even captured new terrains. Most significantly, the army has become a battle ground where religious forces had the upper hand. Third, the secular camp was more an amalgam of changes than a unified and committed faction. For many, these were everyday choices or necessity that neither justified nor required a struggle. And fourth, for many Israelis, of all faiths and ideologies, politics in general was viewed with skepticism if not disdain. Political parties in power appeared to busy with survival, major decisions were avoided and political struggles, consequently, appeared a lost cause.

The political inertia has disillusioned many Israelis that change can be achieved through formal political action but has not diminished demands and frustrations of secular or secularizing Israelis. Secularization evolved not through political-ideological struggles but through incremental changes, often under the radars of observers. New opportunities for change were opened as “secular entrepreneurs” – ideological-atheists, non-Orthodox Jews, FSU immigrants or business owners – became agents of change, responding to new demands and needs and, at times inadvertently, challenged religious authority. For some entrepreneurs it was about ideology, offering alternative marriage services or secular funerals. For others it was business, a shop open on Sabbath or selling non-Kosher meet. And in many cases it was a combination of business strategies and ideological justifications.

Political struggles have all but disappeared. For many secular and non-religious Israelis it is no longer about politics but rather about choices that allow them to circumvent rather than confront religious authority. Twenty years ago Israelis who desired pork had to buy “white steaks” (a code name for Pork) in the few stores and restaurants that sold them. Today, due to the Russian immigration but also a growing connoisseur culture, small shops and large supermarket chains who sell pork (and seafood) can be found almost in every city. The attempts of religious politicians and disgruntled mayors to curb this change have largely failed. Similarly, shopping on Sabbath has become common, especially in out of town shopping malls that cater to the desires of Israelis, many of them would not describe themselves “secular.” Business owners have found different loopholes to allow them to operate on the Sabbath, for example by employing non-Jewish workers allowed to work on Sabbath. For the visitors-customers the shopping on Sabbath is not a political statement but rather, like for many Americans, a choice of leisure or a result of a long work week that does not allow time for shopping.

Campaigns for civil marriage have failed, in spite of the fact that it was no longer just about the desire of secular Israelis to marry the way they choose but also of immigrants not recognized as Jews prevented from marriage. But, more and more Israelis travel to marry abroad, mostly to nearby Cyprus, and register their marriage when they return. This loophole allows Reform and Conservative rabbis, as well as secular specialists, to perform marriage services that will become official once the couple travels abroad and returns with a marriage certificate. In addition, an increasing number of Israeli couples live together as a family without getting married and they are best defined as “common-law partners” or “cohabitants”. Struggles for civil burial have fared somewhat better as the state, under pressure, began to allocate land for civil cemeteries. Private cemeteries are another option for secular Israelis as entrepreneurial Kibbutzim began to offer Israelis to be buried in their well-kept cemeteries where they could be buried in a coffin (not allowed in state-Orthodox cemeteries) and choose a service to their liking.

Secularization of the past decades took off without being wedded to a liberal ideology or a secular identity and by entrepreneurs and individuals whose goals were often concrete and practical.  New secularized spaces were not the result of struggles but rather of the ability to take advantage of loopholes and circumvent rather than confront existing institutional arrangements. In these new comfort zones, secularized spaces, Israelis had new choices regarding significant rituals and everyday practices of shopping and leisure. This de-politicized secularization is unlikely to usher neither a secular nor a liberal Israel. Religion, especially in the current political atmosphere, will continue to serve an indispensable role in consolidating and demarcating national boundaries, guaranteeing secular ambivalence.

New comfort zones provide secular and non-religious Israelis, especially of the middle class and in the Tel Aviv area, freedoms for religious authority so they can live much of their life (and even beyond), if they choose to, free of religious interference. Ironically, these processes seem to provide the political protection to sustain the status quo and the Orthodox monopoly as struggles against religious authority are jettisoned for the purchase of an alternative, a private cemetery or a wedding abroad. Women are still discriminated by the religious establishment, especially in divorce processes that must take place in the rabbinate, regardless where the marriage took place. Separation (or segregation) of men and women continues in different places and last week women were arrested for wearing a tallit at the Western Wall. Israel, is far from liberal when measured in discrimination against its Arab citizens and in public attitudes towards “others.” A liberal and tolerant Israel would require a committed secular public ready to affirm its Jewish identity, inclusive to Jewish and non-Jewish citizens and ready to step out of the comfort zones established in past two decades.


Guy Ben-Porat is an associate professor of public policy at Ben Gurion University and is the author of Between State and Synagogue: The Secularization of Contemporary Israel.

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