‘Religionization’ of Israel Is Troubling


Religionization! Religionization! To read the newspaper headlines in Israel, to view its documentary films and attend its expert panels with academics, a stranger might think that upon landing at Ben Gurion Airport, he or she will have  arrived at nothing less than a Hebrew-speaking version of Iran.

According to those who fear for Israel’s Jewish and democratic future, religionization (ha’datah) is everywhere. The reality, however, is clearly  different from this perception.


Just as Israel’s  Jewish image must be cultivated, so must its  democratic character.

Tel Aviv is not Tehran.  Neither is it Jerusalem. The IDF is fighting for the country and its people, not God.  Israel’s educational system is not rediscovering religion en masse. And while the Israeli public is most certainly changing, it’s actually doing so in the direction of secularization. The status quo in the country  between religion and state is long since dead. Commercial and leisure activities during the Sabbath are more widespread today thanin the past, and  homosexual couples are receiving official recognition. All this in spite of the fact that for 30 years there has existed an ultra-religious veto, overtly or covertly, within the government.

Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. I, as well as many citizens, religious and secular, believe that these two characteristics are critical to the country’s existence. Just as Israel’s Jewish image and identity must be cultivated, so must its democratic character and liberal and humanistic values. Only by listening to one another and being willing to understand the value of creating a synthesis between these two values, and acknowledging the need to sometimes compromise. Only then will it be possible  for the unique and valuable  combination — a Jewish and democratic state — to thrive.

Nevertheless, critics of religionization talk about it as if it is a demon uniquely threatening Israel’s culture and society. Yet, demonizing religion comes with a price. And the price is high. The price is the suppression of all public debate on this and related issues. The price is the stifling of every  serious attempt to address in an open and comprehensive manner the topic of religion and state, and the relationship  between Judaism and democracy.

The hysteria over this issue is dragging us straight to the bottom. Instead of dialogue, we are being subjected to a  cacophony of screaming from all sides. This demon must be put back in the closet, which should then be buried deep in the ground. In place of this demon, the public sphere will be filled with serious and meaningful dialogue on the Jewish and democratic values of Israel.

Shuki Friedman is director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Religion, Nation and State and a law professor at the Peres Academic Center.

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