Discover more from The Liberal Patriot
Rising Above Israel’s Secular-Religious Divide
How political turmoil forced secular and religious Israelis to take one another seriously.
This is the second in a limited series of weekly posts on Israeli politics.
Israel's ongoing domestic upheaval presents a paradox. The controversy around the government's proposed judicial reform has become a deeper struggle over Israel’s character. It seemingly polarizes Israel further between a “secular camp” and a “religious camp,” deepens zero sum perceptions, and makes pursuit of a new social contract more difficult. Yet this very same internal disarray increases the sense of a greater need for such a contract as Israelis grapple with growing risks to Israel’s security, robustness, and perhaps very existence that result.
Israeli society has become a deeply heterogeneous society, characterized by colliding worldviews, secular and religious, liberal and non-liberal. It can no longer be accurately characterized by the previously dominant secular, socialist Zionist worldview of its founders. The secular-religious “status quo” arrangement, established by Israel’s founders to regulate the role of religion within a democratic state, gave birth to a fragile equilibrium concerning religious practices such as Shabbat observance, kosher regulations, marriage regulations, and education. Over time, this arrangement came to include a degree of autonomy for religious communities within national education—including prerogatives to avoid military conscription.
Israel’s current governing coalition includes representatives of politically ascendant religious groups who reject the social contract their predecessors accepted when they represented small minorities in a predominantly secular and liberal Israel. The protest movement represents a reaction to this challenge. The movement is gradually shifting its center of gravity from reactively opposing government policies in an attempt to retain Israel’s existing character, which embodied compromises over secular and liberal principles, to pro-actively fighting for a vision its leaders can define in positive terms.
The protest consists primarily of secular-liberal Israelis who claim that the government’s ambitious agenda threatened their worldview and consequently awakened them from their predominant focus on their personal wellbeing. The “awakening” therefore consists of redefining their core values. Protest leaders and activists see equality and liberty as non-negotiable values and prioritize them above their individual material wellbeing, priorities that inform their political strategies. They underline that they will no longer tolerate violations of these values as they have in the past, especially exemptions from military service for religious Israelis. The existing social contract is thus challenged by both the government and the protest movement.
The conflict among Israelis, notably secular and religious ones, has escalated, with some of its latent elements becoming overt. The focus on equal burden sharing (especially regarding military and civil service as well as government financial privileges to certain communities), notably vis-à-vis certain religious groups, and on specific political-religious ideas which arguably drive Israel away from being both Jewish and democratic, is unmistakable.
It is premature to assess the degree to which the protest movement’s vision and agenda would include a positive vision for Arab-Jewish relations within Israel or for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but some sort of linkage seems likely. The growing willingness of Israel’s Arab citizens to participate in Israeli politics and governments, as evidenced by the sizable popular support the all-united Joint List achieved in 2019 and by the religious Ra’am list’s role in the recent Bennett-Lapid coalition, offer an opportunity for reshaping the Arab-Jewish relations in Israel. And the palpable shift in recent months by protest leaders from a silent stance toward the conflict with Palestinians toward increasingly vocal criticism of annexationist policies signals a likely knock-on effect on the conflict with the Palestinians, albeit of unclear form and scope at present.
The widespread emphasis on polarization conceals two important processes occurring in tandem. First, the purported division to a secular camp and a religious camp conceals a third camp, characterized by secular-religious overlapping of interests and values and therefore pointing towards cooperation and hybridity. Israeli society is characterized by a variety of sub-groups and cultural phenomena that occupy nuanced and hybrid spaces in relation to religion and secularism, such as the modern-traditionalist Masortim, the “formerly religious” Datlashim, and the mostly secular “Israeli Judaism” movement which advocates both Jewish cultural revival alongside a high degree of individual autonomy. Though they may not acknowledge it, moreover, many self-styled religious Israelis embrace values of secular-liberal origins (e.g. female Torah study institutions and religious LGBT groups), much like secular Israelis embrace values originating in religion (e.g. virtually all Israelis avoid driving on Yom Kippur and celebrate Jewish holidays).
Second, the process of polarization includes learning. While Israelis hunker down on their positions, they simultaneously study each other. Some religious Israelis who viewed secular approaches as entirely hedonistic have come to see that secular Israelis do hold non-negotiable values, as well as the will and ability to defend them. Entire roads and entrances to the Knesset and to Israel’s main airport are regularly jammed when controversial legislation is advanced. Likewise, some secular Israelis who have become politically aware as part of the awakening process, come to appreciate that groups represented by the government are driven by different values rather than by irrational folly and that they too are politically potent. The coalition has a firm majority of 64 of 120 Knesset Members.
These contestations within Israeli society not only reshuffle and recalibrate the balance of power between religious and secular Israelis, they also facilitate a deeper kind of mutual learning that goes beyond ideological divides. It’s still early days, but one can already safely say that the numerous discreet meetings between government and protest leaders as well as countless citizen dialogues which pursue intra-Israeli accord are a vital untold story of the last few months of potentially decisive importance.
Israel’s growing polarization across the secular-religious divide includes both challenges and opportunities for Israel’s democracy, and ultimately also for the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Prominent political scientists and philosophers of various political leanings, like Chantal Mouffe, Isaiah Berlin, and John Gray, compellingly demonstrate the inevitable deep diversity in human experience and worldviews, and its desirability for vibrant democracies. Indeed, polarization can deepen democratic commitment and reduce radicalism. Current events in Israel are a democratic opportunity in this sense. When kept in check, polarization does not inherently weaken democratic commitment. Rather, it breeds a need for institutions which allow competition over and cooperation across differing worldviews and their core values. The emergence of such institutions in a polarized society can help counter political apathy and strengthen civil awareness and democratic participation.
We contend that it would be beneficial for Israelis to consider a new form of social contract, agreed upon partly explicitly and partly implicitly, which acknowledges and embraces several partly colliding worldviews. Given Israeli society’s deep diversity of worldviews, the common basis of pluralistic politics needs to be heterogeneous in the sense of embracing the principal worldviews of a society. In a society in which secular values are not majoritarian this can be done only through an arrangement which affirms both secular and religious worldviews—and, relatedly, an arrangement affirming both liberal and non-liberal values. This cuts both ways: non-liberal, religious Israelis would need to consent to arrangements which allow fellow Israelis who so choose to live according to liberal, secular values. A secular, liberal Israelis would have to accept arrangements allowing confreres who so choose to lead their lives according to non-liberal, religious values.
Significantly, Israel already displays multiple types of public spheres: liberal-secular ones, conservative-religious ones, and hybrid secular-religious ones. Public swimming pools in Tel Aviv and Bnei Barak offer two different models: closed on Shabbat and separated by sex or open and mixed. The swimming center in the demographically mixed city of Rehovot offers two pools, a secular and a religious one. The intra-Israeli contestation is likely to nourish the development of such disparate models. This would make it easier for Israel’s leaders to choose to affirm, bolster, and up-scale them.
In light of the aim of regulating this conflict rather than seeking to resolve it by converting all Israelis to a single worldview, none of these models should be formally characterized as representing a minority or majority view; they can apply to both the national and the local level. Securing state support and the legitimacy it infers can assuage the feeling of threat to one’s worldview and thus lessen zero-sum political confrontations.
Because such a plural arrangement aims to regulate a conflict between disparate worldviews, each with its own set of values, laws, and sources of authority, it faces a foundational challenge because it has to be anchored in several sources of authority simultaneously. In particular, such a hybrid political order would have to draw on both secular-civic and cultural-religious roots. Legally, it would have to draw on both state law and religious law; ethically, it would need to cohere with both secular and religious values; and politically it would have to enjoy the support of both state institutions and religious authorities. Importantly, already existing Israeli and Jewish religious and cultural resources can be mobilized for this purpose, including collectivist liberal “live and let live” notions alongside traditional, Jewish concepts like “Ahavat Israel” (“the love of Israel,” stressing the internal bond of the Jewish people) and the “unity of opposites.”
Israel’s future may depend on whether the learning opportunities that overt conflict and polarization offer would overcome the zero-sum dynamics that they cast. A reconstituted social contract could allow Israelis to again manage their differences through democratic processes, without constant resort to civil disobedience, and overcome an emerging constitutional crisis. Relatedly, the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking would receive a major boost if Israelis would learn how to allow for holders of colliding worldviews and non-negotiable values to prosper alongside each other.
Ofer Zalzberg is Director of the Middle East Program at the Herbert Kelman Institute for Conflict Transformation. David Barak-Gorodetsky is Director of the Ruderman Program for American-Jewish Studies at the University of Haifa. This article derives their chapter “Israel’s Secular-Religious Cleavage: Postsecular Genealogies and Remedies,” in Elie Friedman, Michal Neubauer-Shani. and Paul Scham, eds, Polarization and Consensus-Building in Israel: The Center Cannot Hold.