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Ask A Jew: Is Israel a Secular State?

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By Neal Schindler

Is Israel a secular state?

The answer kind of depends on whether it’s the letter of the law or the spirit that you’re after. In a 1990 essay called “Israel as a Jewish State,” the late Daniel Elazar, who was a professor of political science at Temple University, wrote the following (I added the explanatory link):

Israel is formally a secular, democratic state, the only one in the Middle East besides Turkey, but its calendar and rhythm are deliberately Jewish in the same way that the calendars and rhythms of the states of the Christian world are Christian, and of the Muslim world, Muslim.
The Sabbath and Jewish holidays are official days of rest in Israel, albeit on social rather than religious grounds. Public and government bodies display Jewish symbols, whether mezzuzot on every doorpost in every public building or Hanukkah lights on top of every city hall at the appropriate season.
The Israel Defense Forces, El Al — the national airline, and all other public institutions maintain Jewish dietary laws and an agreed-on modicum of Sabbath observance. … Even the most secular Israeli public figures use biblical and talmudic expressions in their speeches and discussions as a matter of second nature.” 

At ProCon.org, where I found the passage from Elazar’s essay, you can check out a few more well-documented opinions on the issue. As a Jewish person who lives in a very evangelical part of the U.S., I have some sense of the difference between what a country says it is and how things play out in real life. Formally, America is not a Christian country but a pluralistic one. However, in parts of the country like the Inland Northwest, it can very much feel like the U.S. is Christian, from the ways in which Christian businesses showcase their faith in advertisements to the vast number of churches, the array of Christian radio stations, and the way in which many folks here assume you’re Christian until you correct them. (Then, upon hearing you’re Jewish or Muslim or whatever, they may not have any working knowledge regarding your faith.) On a national level, don’t get me started on the conservative evangelicals being packed into the highest levels of government, from the vice president on down, who want to legislate and govern based on (supposedly) biblical principles.

Well, shucks — now I’m ranting (and wandering a bit off topic). Obviously, SpokaneFāVS itself is a testament to the fact that pluralism and interfaith work have many strong advocates even in our highly evangelical region. I imagine that if you surveyed 100 or 1,000 Israelis, you might get a similar response: that Israel is technically secular but often seems nonsecular, and yet a significant portion of its population considers pluralism and separation of religion and state very important. Though I will be the first to admit that the journalist Gideon Levy is very progressive and a frequent and sometimes harsh critic of Israel, you may find it worthwhile to read his article in Haaretz, from 2015, on the question of whether Israelis actually want separation of religion and state.

Neal Schindler

About Neal Schindler

A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 2002. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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