Feb 2011 Journal

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Letter from Israel

Despite claims to the contrary, Israel is a secular country. There is, however, a modicum of truth in the assertion that the stream of Judaism defined as Orthodox exerts undue influence, both political and social, over various aspects of life in Israel. Notwithstanding, the majority of Israelis remain doggedly secular, preferring to go to the beach, visit scenic beauty spots or frequent shopping centres on the Sabbath rather than attend synagogue.

Anyone landing at Ben-Gurion airport can see this for themselves. The airport functions on Saturdays and Jewish holidays (except Yom Kippur), airport staff are neither arrayed in kapotas and streimels, nor do they sport long side-locks. Some of the men fulfilling these functions may be wearing skullcaps, or kippot, but those appurtenances represent a wide range of religious belief and political allegiance.

Venture onto the streets or beaches of Tel Aviv and you will be hard put to find Orthodox Jews there, these being more visible on the streets of Jerusalem. Nonetheless, Tel Aviv is far from being a completely secular city and Jerusalem is by no means a completely religious one. Neighbourhoods that were once considered wholly secular in both cities now harbour residents who observe some religious requirements. On the whole, however, most segments of the two groups are able to live side by side in relative harmony.
The majority of Israelis do not identify themselves formally with any religious movement. Since the rhythm of life in Israel is in step with the Jewish yearly cycle, acknowledging one’s Jewish identity does not necessarily involve belonging to an organised group or attending synagogue. It is part of the national DNA, as it were.
The Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, which straddle the region between Orthodoxy and secularism, have gradually been growing in strength in the 62 years since Israel’s establishment. Currently there are 24 Reform congregations in Israel and over 50 Conservative ones, as well as a handful of Reconstructionist synagogues.

In addition, there are organisations such as B’nai B’rith, Rotary and Lions which can be defined as areligious and are dedicated to doing benevolent work, advocating good citizenship and promoting tolerance. The organisations as a whole take on challenges in the fields of welfare and education in order to benefit future generations. B’nai B’rith also encourages the immigration to Israel of world Jewry.

Because Israel’s electoral system is based on proportional representation this means that special interest groups, including those based on religious affiliation, can gain representation in the Knesset more easily than would be the case if we had a system based on regional representation. As the readers of this journal are doubtless aware, that has its good and bad points too.

Thus it has come about that procedures governing events such as marriage, conversion and divorce are controlled by the Orthodox rabbinate. Some people claim that this is because undue political influence is wielded by Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox groups. However, whereas until recently there was no such thing as civil marriage in Israel, and this is still the case as far as Jews are concerned, for non-Jews this is now an option. There is undoubtedly a movement away from the traditional Jewish form of marriage among secular young Israelis, some of whom opt to go abroad – preferably to the neighbouring island of Cyprus – to perform a civil marriage ceremony, which is recognised in Israel, rather than being obliged to comply with the requirements of the rabbinate.

While for the moment secular Jews continue to constitute the majority in Israel, demographic projections do not augur well for the future.

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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