Jewish Journal


The State and Synagogue Exchange, Part 1: Israelis and Israel’s Religious Establishment

by Shmuel Rosner

October 30, 2013 | 8:21 am

Professor Guy Ben-Porat

Professor Guy Ben-Porat is a member of the Department of Public Policy and Administration at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is a co-author of Israel Since 1980 (2008) and co-editor of The Contradictions of Israeli Citizenship: Land, Religion and State (2011). Ben-Porat is an assistant editor of Citizenship Studies. His current research engages with police-minority relations in Israel and elsewhere.

The current exchange will focus on Ben-Porat's recently published book, Between State and Synagogue: The Secularization of Contemporary Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2013)


Dear Guy,

Your new book, 'Between State and Synagogue', begins by pointing out the difference between secularization- a term which denotes the historical process of a decline in religious authority, a decline in the influence of religious institutions and leaders on  a society's public life- and secularism, which is an ideology which aims to promote secular values and secular attitudes.

Looking at Israel, you claim that some of the biggest strides the country has made towards secularization-towards decreasing the presence of its notoriously overbearing religious establishment in the public sphere- have not necessarily been the result of ideological secularist struggles. Interestingly, one of the most dominant catalysts for secularization which you cite is the rise of capitalism, free market economy, consumerism and globalization (when religion interferes with people's shopping habits, solutions are found and the religious establishment has to compromise).

It seems that the great irony is that in Israel, the most vocal advocates of 'the secular cause'- The Kibbutz movement, the Meretz party, the left- have also been the staunchest critics of Israel's shift toward a free market economy, while Israel's right- which, at least in theory believes in freer markets and a 'neo-liberal' economic agenda- has always been aligned with the ultra-orthodox and with the religious establishment (hence the term 'the right-religious bloc').

My first two questions-

1. Could it be that Israel's socialist big-government past bears a lot of responsibility, in a way, for its overbearing Rabbinical establishment?

2. Are smaller government and freer markets part of the solution to Israel's 'Religious freedom problem'?

I am looking forward to reading your answers.

Best Regards,



Dear Shmuel,

Regarding the first question- I do not think Israel was a socialist state but rather a developmentalist one in which power was concentrated in the hands of the government in the process of nation and state building. Under these terms various agreements were made between the Labor Party (MAPAI) and the ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist party which were instrumental for both state-building and Mapai's hegemony.

The famous "status Quo" letter, sent by Ben-Gurion to the Agudat Israel party, is one example of the attempt to co-opt the religious by promising to protect their interests. While this letter was somewhat vague in what it promises (for example, regarding marriage, it states that an effort will be made to prevent a split among Jews), many consider it a cornerstone for what followed. So, one could attribute the religious monopoly to particular arrangements and power-sharing.

However, I think there is more to it than that. As I try to argue in my book, religion and religious institutions have played a vital role in marking boundaries, establishing territorial claims, and providing national symbols. Using marriage as an example again, the majority of Israelis are in favor of establishing civil marriage in Israel, but would prefer to be married by an Orthodox Rabbi. Their support is to a large extent based on sympathy toward people who cannot marry in Israel, some agreement that people should be allowed to choose how to marry, and also a certain resentment towards the rabbinate, which is considered to be rigid and even corrupt.

However, for the majority of Israelis this is not something that is high on their political agenda and, more importantly, they still perceive Orthodoxy as the representative of Judaism. So, while the "big state" and Mapai hegemony had much to do with the establishment of Jewish Orthodoxy and the mandate given to the rabbinate over significant aspects of private and public life, these perceptions are strongly embedded in society so that even non-orthodox and secular Israelis still accept the institutionalization of Jewish Orthodoxy, turn to these institutions in times of need, and rarely resist what is imposed upon them. For many of them, an alternative does not really exist or seems too costly. While in some circles there are changes so that alternative services are sought (reform marriage or secular burial services), the scope of these alternatives is still limited. Non-Orthodox and secular Israelis have yet to rise to the challenge of establishing an independent identity and a commitment to pluralism and liberalism. Interestingly, and that is emblematic of the change, the socialist kibbutzim which were an enclave of secularism, creating their own rituals and traditions, later became proponents of the secularism driven by market forces by opening businesses on Sabbath or offering Israelis to pay for burial in their cemeteries…

Re question two- I think we live an era of growing complexities when what seems like obvious pairings or matches are no longer so. For example, as I argue in this book, secularization can evolve with limited liberalism, especially when it is driven by non-ideological forces or by concrete agendas that are exclusive. For example, many of the Russian immigrants display this pattern of secularism. When asked about support for civil marriage, they are very much in favor. But, when asked about gay marriage the support is low, similar to levels of support among traditional (Masorti) Israelis.

Similarly, one can doubt whether capitalism promises democracy and liberalism. China has privatized much of its economy but has not become democratic. Putin's Russia does not display liberalism. So, will the market economy make Israel more pluralistic and secular? I think only to a limited extent. Market economy in Israel has opened some spaces for religious freedoms and choices (marriage in Cyprus or semi-private cemeteries), but these are limited in what they can achieve in the long run.

Paradoxically, these changes may even impede change in the long run. For the majority of Israelis nowadays, marriage is of little concern. They either marry in the rabbinate or- for the minority that cannot (people not recognized as Jews) or prefers a different kind of marriage- choose from other available alternatives: having a reform ceremony and a civil wedding in Cyprus to have the marriage registered, various legal agreements or co-habiting, which in practice allow the couples (even gay couples) to live as if they are married. Under these circumstances there is limited incentive to politically challenge the Orthodox monopoly. Obviously, if many Israelis will boycott the rabbinate this will bring change, but as I explained before this seems unlikely.

A similar process can be observed with burial. The state has been dragging its feet in the establishment of civil cemeteries. But Kibutzim now offer private cemeteries for anyone willing to pay and some municipalities have also taken the initiative. So yes, some change has been driven by markets but this works best for those who have the means to pay and does not really shake the foundations of the status quo.

Finally, and normatively speaking, I personally don’t find the privatization course as right. Rather, I think the state should fund religious services, but in a pluralistic way that would ensure equality for all and allow all groups the right to offer services and all people the right to choose.

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