Freedom from religion

Published in The Jerusalem Post on April 18, 1999

Imagine that a leftist, secularist government is formed later this summer, comprising Labor, Meretz, Shinui, the ADP, Centrists and Communists, and that it sets out to “fully democratize” Israel….


September 99: Justice Minister Yossi Sarid introduces and passes in Knesset (70-50) a new Basic Law: Freedom Of and From Religion. The law states that “the institutions of state shall not provide or insinuate a preference for religion, or for one denomination within a religion, over other religions or denominations”.


Sarid proudly proclaims that “this important amendment will bring Israel into line with the enlightened democracies of the Western world.” Responding to expressions of concern by the religious public, Meimad members of the coalition say that they have received assurances from the Prime Minister that he “is committed to strengthening the Jewish character of the state”. Minister of Environment Michael Malcior expresses confidence that Judaism will flourish by competing openly in the free marketplace of ideas without state support.


October 99: Basing itself on the new Basic Law, the Supreme Court strikes down as unconstitutional “all government institutions whose purpose is the establishment, propagation or support of religion”, and instructs the government to enact legislation within one year to dismantle state institutions “that relate to faith”. Chief Justice Aharon Barak also hints broadly that the Court is unlikely to uphold the validity of religious parties in the next elections. “Israel”, he writes, “is firmly on the road towards fuller enlightenment and the civilized values of the democratic world”.


November 99: Interior Minister Chaim Ramon introduces legislation instituting civil marriage, divorce and burial in Israel, canceling altogether the mandate of the Chief Rabbinate in these areas. Attorney General Yitzhak Elyagon clarifies that under the new constitutional situation conversion to Judaism is no longer an area of government concern. Ramon abolishes the “religion” line on all identity cards. “This will bring Israel into line with the enlightened democracies of the Western world”, he says.


Jan 00: Transport Minister Dahlia Itzik issues directives allowing El Al to fly, and public transportation to operate, on Shabbat. The Jerusalem District Court rules all Shabbat street closings in the city to be unconstitutional. Itzik and Labor Minister Ahmed Tibi introduce legislation ending Shabbat shopping restrictions. Trade Minister Ronnie Milo annuls kashrut regulations in manufacturing and import of foodstuffs. A timetable is set for the draft of Ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students.


Interviewed by the Post, Itzik avers that she lights candles every other Friday night and “believes in strengthening the Jewish character of the state”.


March 00: Minister of Religion Avram Burg, who crows in every speech that he is “Israel’s last religious affairs minister”, ends government stipends to yeshiva students and all subsidies for the construction and maintenance of synagogues, *mikvas* and *eruvs*. With nothing left to its purview, the Chief Rabbinate terminates itself, its courts and all Religious Councils, calling for civil disobedience in protest. Burg warns that “the clerics are threatening the fabric of our enlightened Western democracy. What we are doing will produce a healthier Judaism for future generations”.


In response to expressions of concern from delegations of liberal Diaspora Jewry, Burg affirms that “prayer remains a legally-protected, permissible activity”, and he enshrines equitable rights to prayer at the Western Wall for non-Orthodox denominations.


May 00: Education Minister Tommy Lapid triumphantly informs the nation that he terminating the “medieval” state-religious school system. “We will support only one democratically-enlightened educational track”, he sneers.


Lapid also outlaws Jewish “proselytizing” as missionary activity, similar to Christian proselytizing. *Ba’al teshuva* seminaries go underground. Even liberal “Jewish studies festivals” are branded as illegal outreach activity, drawing protests from the Reform and Conservative movements. UJA leaders fly-in urgently to express disquiet. Meimad threatens to leave the government. But the Prime Minister reaffirms his “commitment to the Jewish character of the state”, and attends the Great Synagogue on Yom Haatzmaut.


Sept. 00: Deputy Defense Minister Amnon Shahak cancels a paratrooper swearing-in ceremony at the Western Wall; it violates the required separation between synagogue and state. He also announces the disbanding of Hesder units in the army, and confirms that IDF kitchens no longer will be kosher. But Attorney General Elyagon stipulates that under the Universal Declaration on Human Rights “Israeli soldiers of Jewish religious faith” have “the constitutional right of a minority” to order special kosher meals.


Dec. 00: With the “Jewish and democratic character” of the state now firmly established, the Supreme Court rules that the Law of Return is racist, and no longer necessary.


Feb. 01: Culture Minister Yael Dayan signs into law an amendment to “Hatikva” removing the reference to a “Jewish soul” and to “Zion”. “This will bring our national anthem into line with the non-theocratic, enlightened democracies of the Western world,” she says.


Just imagine. A democratic state of the Jews. You want to vote it into office?

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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