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Citizenship, Zionism and Separation of Religion from the State

Wednesday 2 January 2008, by Michael Warschawski

It is customary to say that Haaretz is a progressive newspaper. However, its progressive character is generally no where to be seen when Israel initiates a war against one of its neighbors—its opposition to the previous two wars came only after the newspaper provided support to the policies of the government and the military—or abuses against the Palestinian people. However, when dealing with matters of religion, and particularly hatred of the religious, the progressiveness of Haaretz, its editors and community of readers, is endless.

In the op-ed from 27 December, the writers rail against the “ultra-orthodox blockade” that prevents the conversion of hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union: “the ultra-orthodox rabbis are pressuring and threatening the government, and causing intentional difficulties for the rabbinical courts, which are acting under state authority. The ultra-orthodox are truly not interested in additional members joining the chosen people.”

This criticism represents a common opinion amongst what is dubbed “the progressive liberal camp” in Israel.

Truly liberal? And indeed progressive?

This same camp accepts the assumption that in a Jewish state, full and real citizenship is possible only for a Jew. And not just for any Jew, but a Jew according to the definition of the religious establishment. It is difficult to perceive in such a definition, any sign of progress or enlightenment. This definition is based on the legitimization of an ethnic state, in contrast to a civil one, as the defining criteria for residency and connection to the land.

Indeed, the religious perception does not always suit national interests, including the need, in a Zionist state, to increase as much as possible the number of non-Arabs in the population registry. This contradiction, between the reliance on religion for the definition of citizenship, and the national need to increase the number of residents defined as Jews, compels the liberals to become analysts and reformers of religion. Members of Knesset who desecrate Shabbat in public, and non-religious newspapers, rely on structures of the religious canon to bolster their ideology and national interests! This is unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of religion, generally characteristic of totalitarian regimes that bend religion to their needs. This has absolutely nothing to do with progress and liberalism.

Of course, there exists another way: to preserve the autonomy of religion through a separation between religion and the needs of the state. This path prevents the interference of religion in state affairs, but also ensures that the state does not interfere in religious affairs. It protects the citizen from interference of religion in her/his private life, and further preserves the possibility that believers can live their lives as they see fit. This is the meaning of the concept of “secularism,” which is one of the foundational characteristics of modern democracy.

The editors of Haaretz and their friends from the liberal camp, however, are not secular at all. The majority loathe religious people with a racist hatred, but do not raise the idea of separating the state from religion, for religion provides them with justification for the claim to exclusive ownership over the territory, in addition to the definition of citizenship that removes the Palestinian from the whole and leaves them, in best case, in the position of second-class citizens.

In order for Israel to be transformed into a democratic state, it must, amongst other things, become a secular state. That is to say, religion needs to be made the private affair of each citizen, with no attempt to determine what is a “reasonable religion,” a “progressive religion” or a “modern religion.” This is the democratic right of each citizen, to live according to her/his religion. In a secular state, religion does not determine who a citizen is and what the rights of each citizen are, and the state does not determine who has the right to belong to one religious group or another. In a democratic state, the religious community is a private and exclusive club, only the members of which have the right to determine who belongs and who does not.

The attempt to “convince” rabbis to convert hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union is not only a racist act against Palestinians, but also gross injury to religious autonomy and a transformation of religion into a tool in the service of foreign political goals.

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