The following is the edited text of a Sadat Forum held at the Brookings Institution on February 23, 1999. The cosponsors are the Brookings Foreign Policy Program and the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland.
SHMUEL SANDLER, Sara and Simha Lainer Chair in Democracy and Civility, Bar-Ilan University
On Sunday, February 14, 1999, two big religious-secular demonstrations occurred in Jerusalem in which 300,000 people participated. I watched the demonstrations on television, since I did not know in which one to participate. This shows my personal viewpoint. I understand both sides and I will try to be as fair as I can be in presenting the rivalry between them. Public-opinion polls indicate that Israelis see the internal divide as very critical. Most of them believe that this divide is sharper than the one between Arabs and Israelis or between Israelis and Palestinians.
Turning to behavior, unprecedented events in inter-Jewish relations have occurred over the last two decades. The first was the emergence between 1979 and 1983 of the "Jewish underground," where for the first-time religious Jews took the law into their own hands in the administered territories. Some of them even planned to blow up the Dome of the Rock mosque in order to stop the Camp David peace process. Such an incident was designed to drag Israel and the Muslim world into an inter-religious war. The second event, the most extreme, was the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a religious Jew, again designed to stop the peace process [see the review of Murder in the Name of God in this journal]. This act followed a decree by Zionist rabbis that religious soldiers should refuse to evacuate settlers if and when the Oslo peace process required such acts. The third is the occurrence of demonstrations and threats against judges of the Supreme Court, endeavors that imply distrust on the part of many religious Jews of the institution that represents the normative power of the state. These three indicators reflect the deep religious-secular divide in Israel.
Why did the conflict between religious and secular Jews in Israel break out at this juncture? From a political-science point of view, I must explain why the relatively stable church-state relationship that had existed since the inception of the Jewish state collapsed. Why did the power sharing arrangement, which was the basis of Israeli politics and which functioned in the past, suddenly come to an end? The second problem in understanding the crisis is that, from a social perspective, the crisis is not inherent and hence not inevitable. Based on a 1993 study of the Louis Guttman Israel Institute of Applied Social Research, religious practices and beliefs of Israeli Jews divide along a spectrum rather than a split. Ethnic-politics theory identifies "divided societies" with a dichotomy, as is the case in Northern Ireland, where one is either a Catholic or a Protestant. Such divisions characterized Holland in the past and today describe Canada or Belgium. Divisions along a spectrum usually bring stability. Israelis in high proportions do keep certain practices and maintain core beliefs. While only 24 percent define themselves as religious, over 60 percent believe in God; only 13 percent do not. Almost 80 percent "keep a seder on Passover," while 56 percent never attend synagogue. Israelis are divided between the religious (ultraorthodox and modem Orthodox) on the one hand and the secularist on the other, with many in the middle not defined as either. This situation should not lead inevitably to conflict and irreconcilable divisions. In the lack of a dichotomy that typically characterizes deeply divided societies, the question we must ask is, why did the secular-religious divide break out now and in such a sharp manner?
I can suggest several explanations. First, events in Israel are part of a world wide phenomenon: the comeback of God. The reawakening of religious dogmas, related to the disappointment of people in the effectiveness of the state, awakens fear in others and brings them to react. An indication of the return of religion to the public square is the ethno-religious conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India. The occurrence of Hindu extremism is unique. Intolerance is more common in monotheistic religions like Islam, Christianity and Judaism, as belief in one God is exclusive. Samuel Hungtington's "clash of civilizations" idea reflects this new global phenomenon of cultural conflicts in which Israel takes part.
The second possible explanation for the timing is the winding down of the Arab-Israeli conflict. When the external threat declines, it is to be expected that societies will tum to internal conflicts that had been pushed aside.
I now turn to the domestic scene. A theory widely accepted in explaining politics in Europe is "consociationalism." In American terminology, it means power sharing by elites. This arrangement has characterized politics in divided European countries, where elites of opposing camps after elections reach an agreement on how to divide power and thus encourage their respective camps to support state institutions. This arrangement, which characterized relations between the secular and religious camps in Israel, broke down in 1977. With the defeat of Labor, the new coalition was no longer an alliance between two ideologically opposing elites. It was a coalition between parties close to one another, a nationalist party (Likud) and a national religious one (NRP, the National Religious party). Though secular, the Likud and its leader Menachem Begin attracted the ultraorthodox parties into the government. In this new government coalition, the elites sharing power did not bring into the arrangement ideologically opposing camps but rather contiguous groups. Indeed, after 1977 the "historical alliance" between Labor and the NRP broke down and has never been reconstructed. In the absence of an arrangement between elites, friction seeps down to the masses.
A second internal explanation would be that the National Religious party had changed from a moderate party in foreign affairs into a hawkish party. Religious Zionism, which served as a bond between the two camps, by changing its attitudes on foreign policy and adopting some of the maxims of ultraorthodoxy, abandoned its traditional role of a bridge between traditionalism and modernity. The Israeli political map is divided along a left-right horizontal axis and a secular-religious vertical axis. Shas (the Sephardi religious party) and Agudat Yisrael (AY, the ultraorthodox party) are in the center in terms of the left-right divide on foreign policy; they lie opposite to Labor, the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) and the two Arab parties on the horizontal axis. Hence, instead of cross-cutting cleavages that contribute to stability, the political map reflects a divided polity. The departure of the NRP from the Labor camp to the opposite one created a vacuum that no party has been able to fill. Moreover, this shift created an association of religion with hawkishness in foreign policy, thus reinforcing the two cleavages rather than blending them.
Why could no one fill the NRP's place? For historical reasons, it is hard for Agudat Yisrael and the Sephardi elites to associate with Labor. Ultraorthodox leaders accuse Labor of the secularization of Israel and have found no ideological grounds for forgiveness. The Sephardi Jews blamed Labor for their low status in Israeli society and the destruction of their traditional family structure when they were absorbed into modern Israel. Only the NRP, as a modern-Orthodox party, had the ideological framework that could serve as a bridge between the two camps, and its departure from its traditional role shook the fabric of Israeli society.
The collapse of power-sharing and the shift of allegiance by the NRP illustrates the phenomenon of overlapping cleavages replacing cross-cutting ones. Instead of reconciling, the leaders of the opposing camps pulled society apart. Overlapping cleavages in Israeli society were traditionally identified with the divide between Arabs and Jews (religion, income, societal status, ethnicity). In contemporary Israel the Arab parties are now in the same camp as Labor. The Jewish-Arab divide, while still strong enough, is beginning to break down; the religious-secular cleavage is on the rise.
Finally, not only did the religious camp change, but so did Israeli secular society. Paradoxically, with Israeli society distancing itself from Marxism and socialism, it became more secular. Permissive Western norms cannot be stopped at the social or geopolitical borders. Cable TV and satellites have imported practices and beliefs. The breakdown of socialism as an ideology created a vacuum at both the elite and mass levels that was replaced by post modern individualism and Western liberal democracy. While the religious camp kept its traditional communal and collective value system and even moved further toward communalism and segregation, secular Israeli society abandoned its collective norms and practices. The emphasis on individualism and personal success diluted Zionist maxims, thus weakening what was once defined by Charles Liebman and Eliezer Don-Yehiya as Israel's civil religion. With secular Israel becoming more secular than ever before, secular and religious Jews grew further apart.
The secular-religious divide could also be defined in the postmodern language of the politics of identity. Each side looks at the other and defines itself in terms of the other’s opposite. The religious sees the secular as empty and the secular sees the religious as backward. Secularism is perceived as lacking in values and hedonistic, while religion is seen as a menace, aimed at conquering society and pulling it back to the Middle Ages. The other is seen as one dimensional and the opposite of oneself.
At this juncture, prior to the elections, the battle focuses on Supreme Court issues. No political institution represents such an antithesis to the religious person as does the Supreme Court. To be sure, the power and the role of the Court have changed drastically over the last two decades, especially since the election of new Chief Justice Aharon Barak [no relation to Ehud Barak, the prime minister]. As the president of the Court, Barak led a constitutional revolution by transforming the traditional approach of the courts toward political issues. He regards every issue as adjudicable, whereas the previous court usually abstained from intervening in controversial issues that divided Israeli society. The current philosophy of the Supreme Court is that everything can come before the judiciary. Traditionally an issue like the Reform-Conservative split would have been referred back to the Knesset as a political issue. For a while the new court intervened repeatedly in issues of state and religion and forced the Knesset to act or else to accept the court's liberal interpretation. Since Barak's election, many of the vacancies on the Supreme Court have been filled by jurists who were known to be close to his point of view. Since Israeli Supreme Court judges are not chosen by the chief executive, Barak has succeeded in creating a court in his own image. Thus, instead of a pluralistic court, Israel today has a very homogeneous one, ruled by Barak.
To the ultraorthodox, the fact that the Supreme Court, which lacks proportional representation, intervenes in the legislative process and also forms the values of Israeli society presents a threat to the "Jewishness" of the state. Ironically, the Supreme Court has become a Council of "secular sages," comparable to the ultraorthodox Council of Sages. To some, Barak is now the chief rabbi of secular Israel. To justify his approach, Barak even uses Jewish phrases that have a religious tone. Mimicking the Jewish expression "the whole land is full of His glory," Barak coined the expression "the whole land is Law." The fact that the Supreme Court is not elected, but appointed by a committee in which jurists have a majority, provides it with an elitist image lacking the element of representative democracy. In the United States, voters electing a president know that they indirectly also have a say on who will fill vacancies on the Supreme Court. With this element missing in Israel, the religious segment feels the lack of any influence over the organ that sets the norms of Israeli society. In contrast, secular Israel views the Supreme Court as a bastion of democracy and enlightenment.
At the risk of trying to look into the future, which is always dangerous, I will conclude with two insights. First, despite the crisis, I do not think we are entering a civil war, for one main reason. Jewish tradition, based on the historic myth that the "second commonwealth" was destroyed because of a hatred between Jews that resulted in an exile of 2,000 years, would prevent it. This myth, accepted especially by the religious, is also shared by secular Jews: When brother fights brother it will lead to the end of the state and of the third commonwealth.
The second insight regards the election. The new electoral system in which Israelis vote directly for the prime minister doesn't ease the tensions between religious and secular Jews. A pattern in which religious and traditionalist Jews tending toward the hawkish side vote for one candidate and secularists vote in high numbers for the other sharpens the divide rather than heals it. Should such electoral behavior occur, it will bring out the overlapping cleavages in society rather than the cross-cutting ones. One can only hope that, following the elections, the winner will have enough wisdom to form a national unity government to heal the splits in society.
"Religion in Israel-Diaspora Relations" ROBERT O. FREEDMAN, President, Baltimore Hebrew University
Religious issues have always been problematic in relations between the Zionist movement and Diaspora Jewry. This began with the active opposition of both Reform and Orthodox Jews to the establishment of the Zionist movement in 1897 by essentially secular Jews. It continues today in the conflict between American Reform and Conservative Jews, on the one hand, and the Israeli government, which they see as kowtowing to the Orthodox in Israel, on the other. While there have been some periods of relative calm in the relationship, such as between 1967 and 1982 and again from 1992 to 1996, when issues of Israel's security became paramount, the underlying tensions have always been there. They are probably at their highest point in history today. My analysis comes both from academic study and also from being a participant/observer in some of the events I will discuss.
While the modern Zionist movement called for the establishment of a Jewish state secured by the support of the great powers, it ran into immediate opposition from both ends of the Jewish spectrum. Reform Jews at that time felt that the dispersion of Jews around the world was the will of God, and any attempt to rebuild a Jewish state would go against God's
During the 1920s and 1930s, the situation changed somewhat. The American Reform movement, witnessing the rise of antisemitism in Poland and Germany, took a more neutral stand on Zionism, while the ultraorthodox Agudat Israel, which had been cooperating politically with the Polish government, grudgingly became willing to cooperate with the Jewish leadership in the Palestine Mandate while keeping them at arm’s length. Meanwhile, the religious Zionist Orthodox leader, Rabbi Abraham Kook, legitimated secular Zionism for his Orthodox coreligionists by stating that the secular Zionists, in preparing for the Jewish state, had the spark of the Messiah in them, even if they themselves did not recognize it.
While during and immediately after the Holocaust there was an increase in support for a Jewish state among American Jews, at the time of the proclamation of the state in May 1948, American Jewry remained split, with the American Council for Judaism breaking with Reform Judaism as Reform Jews became more supportive of Israel.
American Jewish support for Israel skyrocketed on the eve of the June 1967 Six-day War, when American Jews thought another potential Holocaust situation was developing. American Jewish communities organized around fund-raising federations and began sending $350 million to Israel annually. Despite marginal opposition, American Jewish support remained high until the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, when serious questioning of the Israeli government began within the Jewish community. Simultaneously, a bitter dispute broke out between the U.S. Jewish leadership and Israel over the destination of exiting Soviet Jews, with American Jews arguing for freedom of choice and Israeli leader Menachem Begin demanding that they go to Israel. Meanwhile, Israeli government support for such Christian fundamentalist leaders as Jerry Falwell also angered U.S. Jews because Falwell's view of a Christian America differed strongly from American Jewry's view of a pluralistic America.
During the 1967-82 period, religious issues did not come to the forefront of the relationship, although the religious parties holding the balance of political power between Labor and Likud after 1977 became more assertive. Religious issues were to emerge as a major factor in Israel Diaspora relations in 1988 when the "Who is a Jew?" question, perhaps better defined as, "Who is a rabbi?" burst forth. The Shas party, which had become a key factor in Israeli politics by 1988, began to press to prevent Reform and Conservative conversions to Judaism performed abroad from being recognized in Israel. A delegation of the top U.S. Jewish leadership flew to Israel to confer with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir on this, and he later formed another national-unity government, rather than one dependent on the religious parties, thus preventing a confrontation with American Jewry. When the national-unity government collapsed in May 1990, however, the crisis over the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait erupted before religious issues bubbled to the surface. The Iraqi missile attacks during the Gulf War led to another period of rallying around Israel by American Jewry. Security issues dominated the relationship following the war, the most important being the dispute over U.S. loan guarantees relating to the Shamir/Sharon program of settlement-building on the West Bank, along with Israel's cooperation with the Madrid peace process.
There was a period of major reconciliation between American Jewry and Israel during the Rabin years. In the first place, Rabin's government had a far more secular focus than did Shamir's, making American Jews, long enjoying church-state separation, much more comfortable. Second, Rabin's peace process, first with the Palestinians (1993) and then with Jordan (1994), was extremely (75-80 percent) popular with American Jews, who are overwhelmingly Reform and Conservative (85-90 percent). Among the 10-15 percent of America's Jews who are Orthodox, only 50 percent were supportive, while in Israel, the Orthodox, particularly religious Zionists, bitterly opposed Rabin, with some rabbis telling Israeli soldiers not to obey orders.
When Netanyahu took office, however, the situation changed markedly. For the first time the separate issues of security and religion were fused, as not only did Netanyahu radically slow down the peace process, he also formed the most religiously dependent and right-wing government in Israel's history. The issue of "Who is a Jew?" came to the fore again, but this time Reform and Conservative Jews petitioned Israel's Supreme Court for equal treatment under the law, including service on local religious courts. The Supreme Court supported their claims, while at the same time demanding that ultraorthodox men serve in the Israeli army. This, in turn, led ultraorthodox rabbis to denounce the Court, proclaiming that religious law transcends secular law and demanding that the Knesset pass legislation upholding the authority of the chief rabbis over religious councils. This led Conservative and Reform Jews to threaten not to finance or support those Knesset members who voted for the bill or allow them to appear in their synagogues.
The situation deteriorated to the point that Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, had to assert, "There is an emotional distancing going on between U.S. Jewry and Israel that is very difficult to overcome. It could have practical implications in terms of feeling part of the same family...even politically. The American Jewish community has been a strong lobbyist on behalf of Israel. Can that still happen?" ("Girding for Battle: Jewish World, Pluralism under Fire," Jerusalem Report, March 1, 1999, p. 32). Rabbi Myers is a cautious man and not given to hyperbole. American charitable federations cannot raise money for Israel anymore and are dropping their funding, but since the U.S. government gives Israel $3 billion annually, that $350 million is not so important.
In conclusion, let me note that we are perhaps at the point of the most serious confrontation between American Jewry and Israel since the state was established in 1948. Unless there is a sharp improvement in the quality of leadership in Israel, the growing gap between Israel and the American Jewish community may reach dangerous proportions.
"New Divide in Arab Politics in Israel" SHIBLEY TELHAMI, Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development, University of Maryland
In Israel, the religious-secular divide among Jews is increasingly matched by a similar one among Arabs, as recently exemplified by the unprecedented sectarian troubles in Nazareth, Israel's largest Arab town. As peace takes hold between Israel and the Palestinians, this divide will move to the center stage of politics.
Although the recent tensions among Arabs in Israel have taken a sectarian shape along Christian-Muslim lines, the central issue is the mobilization of voters for new parties, away from the non-sectarian Hadash party, made up mostly of former Communists. For years, the Communist party in Israel was dominant among Arabs, especially in Nazareth, as the only non-Zionist party. It championed Arab and Palestinian rights and drew support from Muslims, Christians and some Druze. The broader questions about Arab rights in Israel and about the Palestinians trumped sectarian divisions. Oddly, Hadash's Communist predecessor represented a secular Arab nationalist trend in Israel. Its power was bolstered by important services to the community, most notable among them its program to send young members to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for professional education, especially in medicine. Most came back as prominent members of the community and party activists. The party also benefited from the absence of non-Zionist competition.
The demise of the Soviet Union, the Oslo agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, and the rise of new Arab parties to compete with the communists combined to undercut support for the Hadash party. Until the last Israeli election, all Arab parties running in the elections for the Knesset in Israel emphasized Arab identity and did not seek to tap into sectarian differences. Much of this changed after the Oslo accords.
Perhaps the most important change was the political mobilization of Islamic groups. Although Islamic groups had mobilized at the local level before and ousted competitors, including Communists, from local offices, they had not felt comfortable entering national politics because this would entail their acceptance of Israel. The Oslo agreements resulted in a new willingness to enter into national politics. The tendency was bolstered by the fact that the Arab parties during the Rabin-Peres government enjoyed unprecedented influence. They were able to deliver many state services to the community because they were critical for the ruling coalition, although they were not officially part of the government. The Islamists wanted in.
The promise of new voters, many of whom had never voted in national elections before, led the small Arab Democratic party to enter into a coalition with a faction within the Islamist movement. This alliance worked in the Israeli elections that brought Benjamin Netanyahu to power in 1996, resulting in the doubling to four of the members of the Arab Democratic party in the Knesset, including two members from the Islamic movement. Increasingly, the Islamic movement became the core constituency of the party. Sectarianism within Arab politics in Israel was thus born.
The 1999 election campaign witnessed intense competition for Arab votes among three Arab parties. It was preceded the year before by a similarly intense competition in elections for town councils that had far reaching ramifications for Nazareth, traditionally dominated by the Communists and their successors. Although most of the time the mayor of Nazareth has been a "Muslim" Communist, most recently, the elected mayor has been a "Christian" Communist. Until recently, this distinction has not been particularly important, even though the majority of Nazareth's citizens are Muslim. But Mayor Ramez Jaraisi faced a serious political problem to which his party had not been accustomed: the city council was controlled by the Islamic movement. This powerful demonstration of gains by the Islamic movement at the expense of Hadash was blamed on divisions within the secularist camp, where Hadash faced competition. But the net result was stalemate, with Hadash refusing to accept the new power realities in Nazareth and the Islamic party frustrated for losing the mayorship. It was a brewing conflict looking for a spark.
The political power struggle was soon transformed into a sectarian one. A "Christian" mayor, in order to improve tourist access to the Church of the Annunciation for the "Nazareth 2000" commemoration of the childhood of Jesus, employed the help of the Netanyahu government to gain control of land taken by the Israeli government from the Islamic Trust (Waqf) when the Jewish state was established. Making the issue more explosive, the half-acre plot contained a shrine to a little-known Muslim warrior, the nephew of Saladin and one of his commanders who defeated the Crusaders in 1187. It was the perfect occasion for the Islamic movement to take Muslim votes away from the Hadash party and to portray Mr. Jaraisi's moves as sectarian at heart.
The net result was the mobilization of the constituency of the Islamic movement. Activists constructed a tent at the site and occupied it for months, flying green flags and demanding the establishment of a mosque at the site. Its leaders proposed solutions to the crisis by building the mosque over a parking structure to accommodate the Nazareth 2000 project. But tensions continued to rise in the run up to the May elections, culminating in violent confrontations between Christians and Muslims at Easter that left 20 people injured. But the political payoff was the election result: The coalition of the Islamic movement and the Arab Democratic party increased its power in the Knesset to five seats; Hadash's representation was reduced to three.
It is clear that the genesis of the episode in Nazareth lay in the exploitation of the end of the second millennium for tourism - as is the case with the Palestinian Authority's promotion of its "Bethlehem 2000" project. But the symbolism was too alluring to ignore. While the Islamic movement sought to make an issue of the mayor's moves for its political gain, the mayor's own drive to minimize the movement's power may have ignored opportunities for a political resolution to the crisis. The end result is the same: unprecedented Christian/Muslim tensions in Nazareth. Politics in the city, and probably among Arabs in Israel more broadly, have undergone a major shift.
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