Advancing Religious-Secular Relations in Israel:How the International Community Can Help

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 11-Dec-05 | Author: Ahava Zarembski

Ahava Zarembski:"Israel must promote a strategic policy for internal Jewish coheison"
Ahava Zarembski:"Israel must promote a strategic policy for internal Jewish coheison"
Israel's Jewish community is comprised of distinct sub-communities with various religious and socio-political outlooks. Sensitivity to this diversity may allow Israel to promote an international agenda with long term stability.

Facts on the Ground

Israeli Jewish society is comprised primarily of four groups:

1) The Haredi, or Ultra-Orthodox community, rejects secular culture and maintains an ideology of separation to preserve Jewish tradition. On a broad scale, the community does not serve in the army but does participate in political discourse to help shape the national agenda and promote community interests. The Haredi believe that a sacred state will only be established with the arrival of the messiah and grants sacred weight to the fact that Israel houses half of world Jewry as well as to the notion of the "Land of Israel."

2) The Religious-Zionist community grants holiness to the state itself, maintaining redemption to be a gradual process and the state of Israel as a next stage in the impending redemption. As such, the community and its ideology are particularly intertwined with settlement of the land, increasingly pronounced since the 1960s. It was this community in particular that was at the heart of the disengagement resettlement and emotional struggle. The Religious-Zionists participate actively in the military and political system and are becoming more motivated to engage in political leadership in the future.

3) The secular community is diverse, ranging from secular liberal, for whom civil rights and engaging with the modern, global society is a primary concern, to a more nationalistic segment with ties to Jewish tradition. The secular community has its roots in Secular Zionism, demanding Jews must not wait for the messiah for political independence and security but rather determine their own fate through the establishment of a Jewish state. Today, these people find themselves in a state of self-exploration weighing Israeli culture, Jewish identity and integration with modern global society.

4) Finally, the Masorti community or traditional1, comprises 33% of the population of Israel and stems heavily from Eastern backgrounds that maintain roots in Jewish tradition, while balancing it with increasing global integration. Both the secular and Masorti communities partake heavily in military service and political affairs.

The Future demographic makeup of Israel's Jewish community is uncertain. The Haredi community currently comprises 7% of the Israeli Jewish population. With a total fertility rate of 6.5 children, it is expected to comprise 11% in 2020 and 17% in 2050. The Religious-Zionist population currently makes up 18% of Israel’s Jewish population with an approximate total fertility rate of 4.5 children, and the community is expected to grow to 21% of the Israeli Jewish population by 2020 and 24% by 2050. 2 The Masorti community, with a total fertility rate of 2.5 and the secular 1.5, who together (traditional and secular communities3) currently comprise 75% of the population are expected to decrease to 68% of the population by 2020 and 59% in 2050.4 Hence, there is a projected shift in favor of the religious communities against a backdrop of decline amongst the more secular elements of the population.

Relations Today and Tomorrow

Orthodox jews demonstrating against the state of Israel.
Orthodox jews demonstrating against the state of Israel.
The disengagement from Gaza caused a significant increase in tensions particularly within the Religious-Zionist community, which once functioned as the bridge between the diverse religious-secular communities in Israel. While approximately 53% of the country supported disengagement (Dahaf Institute/Yediyot Achronot poll taken on June 9, 2005), the vast majority of the Religious-Zionist leadership came out adamantly against the plan. On the other hand, Haredi figureheads demanded of its community that it remain outside the discourse on the matter, although the population generally tends to take a more hawkish stance on “land for peace” concessions.

Tensions developed over already existing fault lines. According to religious and secular leaders, over the past thirty years, internal religious-secular tensions seem to have increased and been created by four primary factors: Decreased commonality, decreased sense of identity particularly in the secular community, increased segregation and fear of one another. Changes in the makeup and behavior of the population are also having an impact, with the Haredi and Religious-Zionists becoming more involved in internal affairs and at the same time maintaining or increasing a sense of segregationist ideology. As noted in the philosophy of post-Zionism, decreased motivation amongst the secular and their connection to Israel is also having an impact on relations. Future transition population and political shifts will bear weight on international interactions and the ability to promote peace negotiations. Israel must promote a strategic policy for internal Jewish cohesion in order to help enable stable domestic and international policy.

Ideas for Improving Israel’s Internal Jewish Relations

To improve internal relations, several policies can be promoted. First, strengthening the Jewish identity of the secular community can help promote a stable, positive identity. The secular identity today is heavily defined by what it is not. In particular, this means "not Arab." It is an identity that is conflict-based. Identity needs to move from being defined as being against the other to being defined by what one is in itself. Strengthening the Jewish identity of the community is, amongst many of its leaders, the key to creating such a sense of self. This will further create and increase the sense of commonality and common language between the various communities, promote a strong sense of self needed in promoting a healthy relationship and help advance an identity that is overall beneficial to domestic and international policy.

Israel needs to create and advance common goals and a sense of interdependence for its Jewish community. It should implement policies that promote recognition of the contributions and value of each sub-community and help create a sense of national advancement through working together. Tax incentives and stipulations in government contracts to subcontractors in order to encourage the hiring of employees and/or businesses outside a primary company’s base community can be an effective manner to promote joint community projects. In addition, there should be policies that seek to encourage alignment by supporting the unique interests of each community for the sake of overall national prosperity. Here, a national fund for cultural development could be created to provide financial support for innovative projects that would advance a specific element of Israeli culture including art, philosophy, religious/secular higher learning etc. In doing so, increased domestic stability would be created and promote an infrastructure necessary to shape a vision for domestic and international policy that would have greater potential for medium and long term stability.

Secular young jews enjoying their life.
Secular young jews enjoying their life.
What the International Community Can Do

The international community can encourage Israel - parallel to its negotiations with its Arab neighbors - to simultaneously promote a program of internal Jewish unity. Hand-in-hand with external peace efforts, there must be a domestic program to ensure internal cohesiveness and thus stability. It must be a domestic agenda working parallel to international peace negotiations. If not, the diverse communities, particularly those bound heavily to settlement, land and religious significance of the land, may create internal tensions too high to advance a vision with regards to both a domestic and international agenda. Jewish communities in other countries could be engaged to help governments promote this effort.

Moreover, there needs to be sensitivity to Israel's domestic Jewish reality when encouraging peace negotiations between Israel and its neighbors. The various communities and the internal Jewish diversity create a complex situation that must be maneuvered. Strategic relations and adjustment for the various communities could help stabilize the advancing policy and vision. The international community needs to understand this complex situation to allow for Israel to promote its policy in a manner that will help ensure stability of its international agenda in the medium and long term.

The opinions discussed in this piece are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of the institutes with which she is associated.


1 Zarembski, Ahava. Refracted Vision: An Analysis of Religious-Secular Tensions in Israel. (Jerusalem: The Floersheimer Institute for Policy Studies, 2005.)

2 DellaPergola, Sergio, Rebhun, Uzi and Tolts, Mark. “Prospecting the Jewish Future: Population Projections, 2000-2080.” AJY, 2000, pp.26.

3 Direct communication, Sergio DellaPergola, August 17, 2005.

4 DellaPergola, Rebhun, and Tolts, pp. 27.

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