Religion in the public sphere

By Sarah Sullivan, IRAC Communications Intern

For the past week, one of the biggest news stories in Israel has been the controversy over the language of the Yizkor Prayer that is said in Israel in remembrance of fallen soldiers. Previously, the prayer had begun with the words, “yizkor am yisrael,” may the people of Israel remember (the fallen soldiers). Recently, there has been a move to change the language of the prayer to begin, “yizkor elohim,” may God remember. This proposed change has sparked a massive controversy among Israelis in a clear example of the escalating conflict between religion and state in Israel.

In many ways, this conflict reminds me of conflicts that have occurred in the United States in recent years over the relationship between religion and state. Michael Newdow, an American attorney and atheist who is a staunch defender of the separation of church and state, filed a lawsuit in 2000 on his daughter’s behalf to have the words “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. He believed that these words violated the Establishment Clause found in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Most Americans will tell you that the First Amendment provides citizens with freedomof religion, but we often forget that it also provides us with freedom from religion. Newdow felt that the words “under God” in the Pledge violated the freedom from religion guaranteed by the First Amendment. Requiring students to invoke God when reciting the Pledge, Newdow felt, was unconstitutional.

In 2002, the Ninth Circuit Court agreed with Newdow and ruled in his favor. However, when the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, the decision was overturned. The Court dismissed the case on a technicality–Newdow did not have custody over his daughter and could not bring a lawsuit on her behalf. Thus, the Court was able to avoid addressing the controversial issue of whether having God in the Pledge is constitutional.

The controversy in Israel is also the result of inserting God into an aspect of public life. While God can be found in the traditional religious version of Yizkor, the version for soldiers had referred instead to the people of Israel. Now, secular Israelis are protesting the change that replaces Am Yisrael with God.

Interestingly, both of these conflicts boil down to problems of altered language. In its original form, the Pledge of Allegiance made no reference to God. The phrase “under God” was not added until the 1950s. In spite of the similarities that can be found in these two instances of inserting God into state-endorsed statements, there are also important differences that must be noted.

Israel is a Jewish state without a constitution. It is impossible as an Israeli to have freedom from religion because religious leadership controls many aspects of life here including marriage and divorce. Separation of religion and state is not a reality in Israel, nor do all Israelis see such a separation as a goal.

Additionally, while Michael Newdow clearly opposed the presence of God within Pledge, most Israelis are not objecting to the insertion of God into the Yizkor Prayer but rather to the removal of the people of Israel.

Unlike the Pledge of Allegiance in the United State, the Yizkor Prayer is deeply meaningful to every Israeli and is relevant to their daily lives. Removing the people of Israel from the prayer makes it seem as though it is not important for the people of Israel to remember fallen soldiers. Israel is a country that was created by the sacrifice of these soldiers, and in addition to God remembering, it is essential that Israelis remember those who have given their lives for the State and the safety of its citizens. The context is altogether different than that of the United States.

Regardless of official policy, religion has an impact on the state in both Israel and the United States. Inserting God into the public sphere is always controversial. However, context is essential in understanding these issues. The conflict between religion and state in Israel different challenges than such conflicts in the United States.

Thus far, working at IRAC has helped me to gain valuable perspective about the conflict between religion and state in Israel and what we can do to try to resolve some of these issues.

Political hostage no more

By Barry Leonard Werner
The author is an oleh chadash who came to Israel in December of 2009.  He is passionate about Israel and the Jewish people.
Israel is the Jewish State, the national home for the Jewish People. In Israel matters of religion are political issues because they have profound social consequences. Any rational observer knows that Judaism today takes many forms and that Orthodoxy is not the only form of Judaism there is. It is therefore a terrible mistake for Israel to give the Orthodox community the monopoly on deciding the definition of Judaism.There ought to be a broadly based Knesset committee of MKs, who are demonstrably personally committed to Israel being a Jewish state, organized to listen to voices from all the various parts of the Jewish community, inside and outside Israel. That committee should recommend the government’s response to matters of religion, such as the definition of what is or is not Judaism and matters of conversion.
Narrowly defined religious parties should be legally excluded from having a place in any government because the inescapable, inherent logic of Orthodox religious political parties precludes their conforming to the most fundamental requirement of public service. Public servants must give unbiased service to all Israelis, irrespective of whether those Israelis conform to the religious doctrines espoused by a particular Orthodox religious denomination. Israel is a democracy; it is not and should certainly ever even come close to becoming a theocracy.
The Orthodox parties are furthering their own narrowly understood religious values rather than the needs of society as a whole. For example, the Orthodox parties believe that the moshiach will come sooner if their children are paid to study Talmud in yeshiva instead of working for a living or serving in the army, and that this would be of such great benefit to everyone else in Israel that the cost of it should be borne by the taxpayer. However, that’s just one of many beliefs peculiar to their religious tradition that most of the rest of us don’t share. Even many (probably most) religious Jews don’t subscribe to that belief. Given the fact that Israel is faced with enormous military, social and education budgetary problems, it is irresponsible for the religious parties in the government to force Israel to incentivize a large segment of the population to be economically unproductive and a financial burden on the rest of society. Such a social experiment represents irresponsible governance in anything other than a theocracy. Not only that, they hold as political hostage other important matters, such as war and peace, in order to get their way.
If members of a particular sect want to define Judaism in their own particular way they should be free to do so but it should be a private affair that affects only those who freely chose to be bound by it, but of course only within the bounds of secular law.