What Israelis mean when they support the separation of religion and state

September 21, 2015

Hiddush, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that advances “religious freedom and equality,” just published its 2015 Religion & State Index. It is an interesting survey, and the organization deserves credit for it: Many organizations can’t resist the natural temptation to fashion their surveys in ways that will validate their agendas. Hiddush’s survey does not. Its questions are measured and the data are valuable. And the authors, whom I know, make sure to highlight not just the data that are helpful for their cause, but also the data that point to difficulties in advancing it.

Of course, the data still support Hiddush’s agenda. That is because Israelis — in surveys — have views that are not that far from those supported by the organization. Some examples: 65 percent of the Jewish public would like to see a government without the participation of Charedi parties. Seventy-three percent of Jews want an end to rabbinical monopoly on kashrut. Seventy-two percent of the public support public transportation on Shabbat. Sixty-four percent of Jews support the recognition of same-sex marriage or other same-sex arrangements recognized by law. Sixty-one percent support the separation of religion and state — here the authors caution that what Israelis mean by this is not that they support separation “like in the U.S. and France,” but rather that they support an increase in “religious freedom and freedom from religion.”

It is an interesting set of data with an underlying message that forces itself on the reader: In Israel, there is a public that wants something, and a government that is doing something else. Shame on the government. But not to worry: Vibrant organizations can keep pushing for change and will eventually prevail. Why? Because they have the support of the public, as the survey proves.

But does the survey really prove such a thing? Consider the two following nuggets of data:

While 64 percent of respondents would like Israel to recognize “all forms” of marriages — including marriages by progressive Jewish streams as well as civil marriage — only 38 percent of the public would make this a political condition to joining a coalition. Namely, there is a preference, but other issues take precedence over this.

Seventy-two percent of the public support “public transportation” on Shabbat. But what kind of public transportation? Twenty-seven percent support full transportation; the other 45 percent support a limited version of public transport. How limited? We do not know. Limited could be all but a fifth of the usual daily schedule, or it can be just a fifth (or less) of that.

These two items — and you can find many similar ones throughout the survey — highlight some of the difficulties that make the simple formulation of “we have the public on our side” questionable.

First, because the public is not on “our” side. It is a common error to measure political tendencies with just one tool of measurement: preference. In fact, at least two statistics need to be measured: preference and the intensity of that preference. The fact that Israelis prefer to have the option of civil marriage is nice; the fact that they prefer the rabbinate not to be in charge of kashrut is good; the fact that they are tired of Charedi utilization of state resources to bolster their own communities is understandable. But as long as these issues remain on the sidelines — which is where they are, as most Israelis would gladly compromise on religious affairs in favor of other issues (war, peace, taxes, Palestinian affairs, coalition of like-minded people) — there will be no change.

Secondly, because there is no well-defined “side” when we talk about “our side.” Public transportation is case in point: Adding public transportation on Shabbat has many implications. What are they saying in pragmatic terms? I don’t think they mean to say much. Would they support an arrangement that makes it mandatory for drivers of public transportation to drive on Shabbat? I don’t think they would. Would they want buses to noisily spoil their Shabbat morning quiet? Some would, but many wouldn’t. If “public transportation” is a slogan, it is clear that the Israeli public is quick to vote for anti-religious-establishment suggestions. If it is a practical suggestion, the Israeli public has yet to determine what it wants.

And public transportation is a relatively minor concern compared with, say, conversion. Or to drafting Charedi men into military service. These are all complicated, nuanced issues. And when it comes to making changes regarding such issues, a survey cannot be of much assistance

Here is another example: three-fourths of the Jewish public would like to see a change in the way kashrut is supervised. Twenty-four percent of Jews support a change that will “open the market to Orthodox institutions,” and 49 percent support a change that will “open the market to all professional institutions.” Now tell me how this is supposed to happen. Who defines “Orthodox” for those who want “all Orthodox institutions”? Who defines “professional”? What is the meaning of “professional” in the context of kashrut? Who is going to supervise it, at what cost, under whose jurisdiction? What if we move kashrut from the rabbinate to the Ministry of Economy and then a Charedi Shas minister becomes the minister of the economy? (Aryeh Deri of Shas is the current minister of the economy.)

There is, of course, a simple remedy to the issue of kashrut: Let everyone use the word kosher and define it for themselves, as long as their definitions or supervisions are clear. I actually think this isn’t a bad idea. But the survey doesn’t include such options, and I suspect it is because such an idea has little chance of being acceptable to the majority of Israelis — they want someone to verify that kosher is indeed kosher. Only, because they dislike the rabbinate, they prefer it to be done by someone else.

Here we come to the end of the full circle that I wanted to draw. Hiddush conducted an interesting survey. The survey tells us something about Israel. It tells us that Israelis dislike the religious establishment and hence would tell a pollster that they want whatever it is that the rabbinate goes against. It tells us that non-Charedi Israelis dislike Charedi politics and hence would tell a pollster that they want whatever it is that the Charedis go against. This is a testament to a failure of the rabbinate, and it is a testament to a failure of Charedi leaders. But it is not a testament to the real desire of Israelis to turn all the current arrangements of state and religion in Israel upside down. 

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