Israelis Report They Would Support a Separation of Religion and State in Israel

New survey finds perception and reality of ultraOrthodox control Israeli Judaism is misaligned

Photo: Tal King / flickr; screen capture The Tower

By Maayan Hoffman
eJewish Philanthropy

More than one-third of Israelis who define themselves as religious or traditional-religious (non-haredi) say they support the separation of religion and state or reducing its influence on life in the country, according to a new study published earlier this week by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI).

The survey was taken at the end of June, the month which marked 70 years since David Ben-Gurion sent his “status quo” letter to the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party promising that the haredim would exercise control over a handful of personal status and other religious issues in Israel.

Among other survey findings: the majority (56 percent) of Israelis favor a change in religion and state arrangements in Israel. But while 100 percent of secular Israelis support the separation of religion and state or reducing the influence of religion on life in the country, more than three-quarters of ultra-Orthodox Jews would like religion to play a greater role in Israeli life.

More than half of all Israelis report that current religion and state arrangements reflect haredi or religious values.

According to Dr. Shuki Friedman, director of IDI’s Center for Religion, Nation and State, who conducted the survey through IDI’s Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research, what Israelis report and what is happening, might not align.

“This feeling that the ultra-Orthodox are taking over is based on the aggressive behavior of religious leaders and the religious establishment, but the reality is more complex,” said Friedman. “There are certain areas that have remained or even become more affiliated with Jewish or religious values, but there have been changes in other areas that are moving more toward a pluralistic image of Israel.”


Friedman points to the content of the status quo letter, which was meant to remove the threat of the ultra-Orthodox not supporting the establishment of the Jewish state. In the letter, Ben-Gurion promised that in the future Jewish state, Shabbat would be the statutory day off for Jews; that all public kitchens would observe kashrut; that marriage and divorce would be conducted according to religious law; and that the educational institutions of the various religious streams would be allowed autonomy beyond the definition of a common core curriculum. However, the details of this status quo and how they would be carried out were left to be determined by future Jewish leaders, and the definition of “religious law” has changed.

The Kotel is one place where religious law has become more stringent.

“We see that from no partition in 1967, and a knee-high partition in 1968, we now have a 7-foot partition separating the men and women’s section,” said Hila Perl, Director of Communications for Women of the Wall. “The Kotel Rabbi forbids women to pray out loud, read from Torah, and wrap in a tallit.”

Over the last decades, ultra-Orthodox politicians have used status quo issues to maintain some control over the government coalition. For example, late last year, haredi leaders threatened to topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition if construction work on Israel Railways took place on Shabbat. Netanyahu, to maintain stability, ordered the work to stop. However, the High Court overturned the prime minister’s decision.

Similarly, while when non-Jewish and non-Orthodox tourists visit Jerusalem on Shabbat, they might be frustrated by the inability to access commerce or entertainment, certain areas of Israeli operate differently. By Friedman’s estimation, some 30 percent of Israeli commerce takes place on the Sabbath and 25 percent of all shopping malls today remain open on Saturday.

While in 1953, the ultra-Orthodox were granted a monopoly over Jewish marriage in Israel, since then the High Court has passed laws enabling those who don’t want a religious ceremony through the rabbinate to wed, gain matrimonial recognition and/or receive the financial benefits of married couples. In 1962, the High Court ruled that the State had to recognize the civil marriage of Jews who married abroad. Soon after, the High Court granted Israel’s common law couples equal status with legal marriages. And in 2010, the Knesset cleared the way for civil marriages of non-Jewish Israelis.

Friedman said that as many as 12 percent of Jewish Israelis today do not get married through the Chief Rabbinate.

“It is hard today to say what of the status quo has been maintained and what doesn’t have any basis anymore,” said Friedman. “There is a great difference between image and reality, resulting in a sort of chaos around issues of religion and state in Israel.”

IDI, together with several liberal politicians, nonprofit and civil leaders is working on legislative proposals to change the kosher model in Israel to one that includes competition, and to establish new Shabbat laws, which would legalize certain cultural and recreational activities and limited public transportation, which would not follow Shabbat observance according to the letter of the Jewish law, but which would make the day of rest more accessible and enjoyable to less religiously observant Jews.

Friedman said change is slow and incremental, in part because few politicians are willing to go to battle with the ultra-Orthodox establishment over issues of religion and state.

“The problem is a lack of will by the majority of secular politicians to deal with these issues,” said Friedman. “It will ultimately be up to the majority of the population who we see statistically really care about the nature of religion and state and want a change, to push the politicians and demand they reshape this arrangement.”

Perl said status quo is a “fluid term: It doesn’t seem to stay static and set, as one would expect. What we can do is support Jewish organizations whose values we identify with, to participate in on- and off-line communities who share our ideas, to communicate our messages to leaders in our congregation and beyond … Every one of us has a voice and every voice is valuable.”

Full disclosure: Maayan Hoffman is the outgoing director of international communications for IDI.