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.