(Zionism) Secularism Democracy Religion (Israel)

In real-time, Israel has become a huge laboratory-experiment for the study of religion, politics, law, and society; a small and ugly petri-dish for the study of contemporary Judaism and Jewishness. Elected in November 2022 and with passage of the first piece of anti-judicial legislation, the new ultra-national and rightwing-religious government engineered by Benjamin Netanyahu is putting to the test and perhaps proving mainstream bromides concerning Jewishness and democracy in the State of Israel.

The already-old argument against Zionism on the radical political left and the Kahanist religious right is that democracy and statist formations of Jewishness (if not Judaism itself) constitute an irresolvable contradiction. According to this argument, Israel can be either a Jewish state or a democratic state, but it cannot be both. This might be true or half-true. In real-time, we are witnessing today in Israel how the social forces most aligned with “Judaism,” namely Haredi political parties and the Religious Zionism and Jewish Power parties, do so against core tenets of liberal democracy: popular vote, the separation of powers, individual autonomy, and equal citizenship regardless of gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation. There is a lot to be said for the claim that the reactionary power of radical ethno-religion in Israel only underscores how the State of Israel was founded on the basis of a narrow and exclusive form of Jewish ethno-nationalism from day-one of the Zionist project. In this view, reactionary religion reflects reactionary social structure; the problem with Israel is Zionism.

The liberal counterclaim against anti-Zionism and rightwing-religious Zionism starts with the premise that Zionism, a modern form of ethno-nationalism, was always a modern-liberal project, a secular one, not religious and even irreligious, but Jewish all the same. The intertwining of Zionism and democracy entails that the State of Israel is not a viable political form in the long-term outside the framework of liberal democracy. The State of Israel was founded as a modern, secular project and has flourished under conditions that have marked the state as a fraught liberal democracy. In this view, the primary problem in Israel today is not necessarily Israeliness, but Jewishness and Judaism, insofar as they have constituted as reactionary formations of religion and religion in politics, which in the end, undermine the coherence of the Zionist project and threaten the very existence of the State of Israel. (That Jewish religion and relgion itself offer themselves to these kinds of formations is for another conversation.)

For the first time in the political history of the country, the new Likud-Haredi-Settler government engineered by Netanyahu is a completely rightwing and religious government. With no non-religious coalition partners in the new government, the religious partners in the coalition enjoy unprecedented political power. Against the values and norms represented by secular society, against secular society itself, the religious parties (the Haredi and Religious Zionism/Jewish Power parties) and the communities and values they represent in Israel and in the occupied West Bank are the hard core of government and the anti-judicial coup in the Jewish state. For its part, the Likud, no longer a lowercase liberal-secular party, is itself dominated by ethno-national and religious chauvinists. In this government, unprecedented in the history of the country, religious politicians representing reactionary religious communities are in charge and/or maintain positions of considerable influence in all major government ministries (finance, police, defense, education, housing, health, communications).

Setting aside matters relating to belief and ritual, as a sociological force, religion is the pounding heart of the political crisis in Israel today. Without the religious political parties dominant in the government, and without the communities and values they represent, there would be no significant support for either the government or for the anti-judicial coup in Israel today. As polls report consistently, the anti-judicial coup is not widely supported across the broader Israeli society, not even by a great many secular Likud voters. Even leading conservative jurists and legal thinkers enlisted by the government reject the way in which the government is pursuing “legal reform” through legislation.

The primary beneficiaries of the constitutional coup are the religious communities whose political leaders are seeking to overturn the secular character of the country. In setting out to eviscerate the independence of the courts and the rule of law represented by the courts, they seek to [i] entrench the government support that maintains Haredi autonomy and privileges, particularly in relation to funding Haredi yeshivot, exemptions from military service and against introducing common curricular-core studies into Haredi educational institutions, [ii] deepen the hold of chauvinistic and ultra-orthodox forms of ethno-Judaism and undo civil rights in the public sphere, especially against women, the LGBT community, and against Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, [iii] annexation, cementing into place the violent one-state reality of legal apartheid in the Israeli occupied West Bank, the primary pillar of which are mainstream and radical settlements dominated by religious Zionism and their representatives in the government.

In a chain reaction, government dominated by radical rightwing religion immediately creates chaos. Within months of coming to power and for the first time in the history of the country, a government dominated by ultra-orthodox and extreme religious-nationalist political parties has thrown the country into a full-blown constitutional and social and security crisis. In response to the assault on Israeli democracy, a liberal-secular democratic camp forms as if out of nowhere as a determined political force, the country’s credit rating has plunged, capital leaves the country, foreign investment dries up, highways and the airport are blocked, reservists are refusing to serve in the IDF (no one signed up to defend a dictatorial state), half of the infantry forces are tied up policing the West Bank and defending settlements and religious settlers, diplomatic relations with international community and regional states are being undercut, relations with Washington are severely straining. Spikes in Palestinian terror against Israeli civilians and recent anti-Palestinian violence by religious settlers in the occupied West Bank underscores that the Israeli occupied West Bank is a chaotic place of mayhem. Religious politicians and religious settlers verbally and even physically attack the very armed forces sent to protect settlements when the army seeks to maintain a modicum of lawful order. In Israel, the police are unable and/or unwilling to protect Palestinian-Arab citizens of the State of Israel from an ongoing wave of criminal-gang violence. The failure of state bodies now dominated and hardened by religious Zionist parties (Kahanism) to guarantee security for Arab Israeli communities or exercise control of their own citizens in the occupied West Bank is nothing if not a sign of a failed state.

Even before making a second set of claims about democracy and the occupation of the West Bank (about which few Israelis seem to care in any sustained way) and the occupation and religion (about which they should care a lot), the judicial coup underscores that ultra-conservative political religion constitutes an anti-democratic force in society. Because reactionary formations of political religion reject cultural pluralism, the separation of powers, individual autonomy, equality of rights. Because reactionary religion uses democracy to secure non-democratic ends. Reactionary religion in politics poses a threat to general welfare to the degree that religious norms and values and the communities that manifest them are made to trump secular values in the political sphere. Political religion sets itself in opposition to the secular values upon which the State of Israel depends, and that, in doing so, political religion will destroy the very existence of the state itself (as per here by historian Anita Shapira and as per here Yuval Noah Harari).

Against secular Zionism one could always argue that religion and trends in religious society ultimately reflect the larger social structure and culture in which they are enmeshed. Religion mirrors the very secular society which sustains and supports it. But reflectors also distort the thing whose image they reflect. A super-sensitive mirror, religion reflects racism in society and hardens it; reflects social conflict and sharpens it. This has nothing to do with Zionism per se. But under the right conditions, a mirror-reflection can take on a life of its own. Israel today is a clear example of how religion can draw the secular state deeper and deeper into the net of its own machinations. As the country is coming apart at the seams, the political question is whether secular society in Israel has the capacity to isolate, fight and contain religion as a political force inside a constitutional framework.

Religion has always been and will always be a lively part of the larger mosaic of culture in Israel, but the recognition that religion is social is not the same as saying that society is religious, that religion can stamp an entire society. The very notion of a religious society as one dominated by and governed by religion for the sake of religion (society in the mirror of religion) is itself the contradiction in terms.  Essential to lowercase liberal democracy is secularism, a commitment to the broadest domain of the common good and the welfare of society secured by legitimate government. Secular is the universal functioning of the polis itself, the state-functions that buttress public health, law and order, a market economy, private-public safety and national security, infrastructure, clean air and water, housing, public education, support for the poor, support for art and science, universal rights and human dignity. The intention of the religious parties, in Israel and not just in Israel, is to subordinate society to the political sphere, which they seek to subsume in their own image.

Democracy in Israel needs a new social contract to regulate political and legal relations between political, religious, and ethnic majorities and minorities, Jewish and Palestinian-Arab Israeli, as they are all variably constituted in the state of Israel itself; and to do so on the basis of formal and substantive equality and shared citizenship, and a fair resolution of the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For its part, Jewish religion in Israel needs to dis-associate itself from the pragmatics of the political sphere, to set itself inside the four cubits of the law, as part of the larger social mosaic. As an object-lesson in political theory, the constitutional contradiction is not necessarily the one between Jewishness and democracy. Jewishness would stand for Jewish culture, distinct from the religious nationalism and Haredi religion that together dominate Israeli Judaism today. The new government and the social crisis it is creating underscore that the unresolved contradiction is between Zionism and religion, i.e. Jewish religion as currently constituted in Israel, namely ultra-rightwing, orthodox, nationalistic, xenophobic, and in power.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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