Israel is self-designed a Jewish state, but Israel is a state and society constructed on modern democratic principles. However, unlike many other democratic states that ostensibly draw a distinction between religion and state, religious issues (narrowly and broadly defined) permeate all aspects of life in Israel.
   Although the early Zionist settlers were generally secular in religious orientation, the modern nation state they created was replete with symbols directly borrowed from Jewish religious tradition and Jewish history, including the Star of David; the menorah; and respect for aspects of Jewish law (halacha), the Sabbath, and kashrut (Jewish dietary law). The names applied to national institutions and, indeed, the conscious decision to transform Hebrew, the language of the Torah and Jewish religion, into the lingua franca of a modern nation state also reflect Jewish tradition. The Hebrew language today is a rich and growing language covering all aspects of modern life in Israel, in addition to being the language of Jewish prayer and religious observance.
   Despite its Jewish religious roots, Israel guarantees all of its citizens — in law and in practice—freedom of religion and conscience and considerable autonomy under the millet system inherited from the Ottoman Empire. The religious authorities of each non-Jewish community (Christian, Muslim, and Druze) exercise jurisdiction in all matters involving personal status and family law (marriage, divorce, alimony, and inheritance) and apply religious codes and principles in their own courts.
   Israel's Jews are of a single religious faith and share a common spiritual heritage and elements of historical experience. However, there are major differences in outlook, frames of reference, levels of aspiration, and other social and cultural distinctions that divide elements of Israel's Jewish majority population.
   The crux of the religion-state relationship in Israel today—indeed throughout the state's history—is the relationship between the religious and secular segments of the Jewish population. The relationship has, over the decades, manifested itself in various forms of tension, including violence. In the final analysis, it is a question of interpreting the meaning of the concept of "Jewish" in the Jewish state and defining "who is a Jew." Thus, the controversy concerns the role of religious forces and movements within the state.
   The relationship is often simplistically understood as a tension between "Orthodox" and "secular." In fact, Israel's Jews comprise four main categories. In addition to hiloniim (militant secularists), who are said to loosely represent perhaps 20 percent of the population (a number inflated by the massive immigration (see Aliya) from the former Soviet Union), the nonsecular Jewish population divides into three subgroups: haredim (ultra-Orthodox), about 8 percent; datiim (religious Zionists), 17 percent; and masortim (traditional Jews), 55 percent. Further complicating the issue are internal disputes among the haredim along ethnic (Ashkenazi-Sephardic [see ORIENTAL JEWS]) lines and ideological disputes originating in 19th-century eastern Europe.
   Since the prestate period, the political interests of the haredim and datiim have been represented by political parties; although such parties were initially overwhelmingly Ashkenazi in orientation, they have been joined by Sephardic religious parties since the 1980s. The participation of one or more of these parties in coalition governments has tended to be axiomatic, and to the minds of many non-Orthodox Israelis, the religious parties have tended to wield political influence far out of proportion to their actual power.
   In an attempt to ensure support for statehood, the leader of the Jewish community in Palestine and Israel's first prime minister David Ben-Gurion acceded to a series of concessions to the leadership of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox religious communities on the eve of independence that collectively came to be known as the status quo agreement. Among other things, the status quo agreement effectively left the Orthodox establishment in firm control of most issues of daily life in the new Jewish state, everything from respect for the Sabbath and kashrut to education to marriage, divorce, and the approval of religious conversions (a crucial step for Jewish immigrants to receive citizenship rights and privileges under the Law of Return).
   As the world's only Jewish state, many aspects of life in Israel have implications for (and are impacted by) the interests of Diaspora Jewish communities. This is especially the case for the issues of religion and state in Israel, where the dominant non-Orthodox organized streams of Judaism (the Conservative and Reform/Progressive Movements), which traditionally have represented large segments of major Diaspora communities in North America and western Europe, have a direct interest in the outcome of the "Who Is a Jew" debate in Israel.
   Despite significant interventions by influential segments of Diaspora Jewish communities and ongoing efforts (including litigation and grassroots advocacy campaigns) by representatives of the non-Orthodox communities in Israel, matters of religion in Israel— including conversion to Judaism, marriage, and "who is a Jew" (the marking of one's religious classification on national identity cards and the determination of an immigrant's Jewish identity in terms of the Law of Return) — continue to be dominated by the Orthodox establishment. As throughout its history, the only synagogue that Israeli Jews choose not to attend on the Sabbath is the Orthodox synagogue.
   See also Agudat Israel (Association of Israel); Degel Hatorah; National Religious Party (NRP; Mi-Flaga Datit Leumit—Mafdal); Religious Affairs, Ministry of; Rabbinate of Israel; Sephardi Torah Guardians (SHAS).

Historical Dictionary of Israel. .


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