Reviewing the Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg’s new book, The Unmaking of Israel, in last week’s New York Times, the Atlantic columnist and author Jeffrey Goldberg took care to get his apology in early for the mild criticism he was about to make of the Israeli settler movement, beginning by saying:
Let me list, at the outset, the many things that the diminutive but disproportionately interesting state of Israel is not [...] Israel is not a fascist state, nor is it a theocracy nor, for that matter, is it a fascist theocracy.
Leave to one side the redundancy of those last nine words, and put off for another day the question of Israeli fascism, which is in any case not an easy term to define. What is most inadmissible about this sentence is the way it denies the perennial and impermeable divide within Israeli society about the religious character of the state, and by extension undermines the millions of secular Israelis who have to fight every day – not always with much success – to repel the swelling tides of the ultra-Orthodox right wing. As Goldberg knows well, having lived in Israel himself, the suggestion that the Israeli legem terrae is free from religious interference might assuage the anxieties of Zionists in America, but it would meet with ridicule from Israeli Jews – to say nothing, of course, about Israeli Arabs.
The briefest glance at the headlines of Haaretz, Israel’s best-known Anglophone newspaper, suffices to make the point. ‘New rabbinical courts will lead to oppression of women’, read an editorial this week, condemning a move to reduce women’s rights in the country’s powerful religious courts (the mere existence of which provokes some curiosity, does it not?). ‘Fighting to make Israel into a military theocracy’ went another one earlier in the month, explaining how “the hesder yeshivas, which combine army service with Torah study, were making a concerted effort – in conjunction with the IDF rabbinate – to create a theocratic military culture”. Just substitute the words ‘Torah’ and ‘IDF rabbinate’ with ‘Qur’an’ and ‘Ayatollahs’, and try to imagine Goldberg coolly assuring New York liberals that this was a secular state of affairs. A similar editorial in June, ‘Israel needs to keep religion out of the army’, lamented that Israel was “turning from a secular country into a theocracy in which the rabbis set the rules”.
Lengthy indeed would be the task of listing all the ways in which this phenomenon is occurring. I shall restrict myself, therefore, to just three examples of what are unequivocally theocratic characteristics of the Israeli state.
Firstly, there are separate courts for religious and secular matters. Arbiters in the battei din, or religious courts, are rabbis, and the law applied is the halakha, or Jewish law, derived from the Torah and the Talmud. This is no different in principle from the situation in Saudi Arabia, which also divides jurisdiction between civil and religious courts, the latter of which uphold the shari’a, or Islamic law, derived from the Qur’an and the Hadith. (If Goldberg believes the Kingdom to be a secular country, I’m not aware of his having said so.) In Israel, the battei din are invested with substantial power, including total control over marriage – as in Saudi, there is no civil marriage in Israel, meaning that non-believing citizens must travel abroad to tie the knot – and divorce. In addition, there exist in Israel de facto supplementary religious courts, such as the Takana, which handles crimes committed by the clergy and, not unlike the Vatican, tends to prefer to keep things ‘within the family’ where possible. As the Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy put it:
A high school teacher at a secular school who sexually assaults his students would be turned over to the police. A rabbi at a yeshiva [religious school] suspected of the same thing would be turned over to Takana. Perish any connection between them, but the criminal underworld also has its own judicial system with the means to investigate and punish. In that respect, there is no difference between the underworld and Takana.
Secondly, the laws concerning immigration are explicitly religious in both letter and spirit. The text of the amended ‘Law of Return 5730-1970’ defines a “Jew” as “a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion”, and grants any such person the automatic right to citizenship. This definition, as the great Israeli polymath Israel Shahak noted in his seminal Jewish History, Jewish Religion, comes directly from the halakha, being:
[T]he Talmudic definition of ‘who is a Jew’, a definition followed by Jewish Orthodoxy. The Talmud and post-Talmudic rabbinic law also recognise the conversion of a non-Jew to Judaism (as well as the purchase of a non-Jewish slave by a Jew followed by a different kind of conversion) as a method of becoming Jewish, provided that the conversion is performed by authorised rabbis in a proper manner. This ‘proper manner’ entails, for females, their inspection by three rabbis while naked in a ‘bath of purification’, a ritual which, although notorious to all readers of the Hebrew press, is not often mentioned by the English media in spite of its undoubted interest for certain readers.1
One assumes that Goldberg would be less than thrilled if Congress passed a law granting instant green cards for all Jewish converts to Christianity, and indeed Levy has argued that the Israeli legislation amounts not only to theocracy but to racism as well:
It's time to admit that this approach can only be called racist. Yes, that hackneyed term. That's what it is when it is the blood flowing through the veins that determines your status. If the grandson of a woman whose Judaism is doubtful has the right to automatic citizenship when he arrives here from the ends of the earth, and a non-Jewish soldier who chose to fight and live here runs into rabbinic obstacles, then this is not just judgment by religious law, but judgment by racist law. If the Arab native is an outcast, but a member of the "Tribe of Menasseh" from Burma is welcomed with full rights simply because a rabbi said he was Jewish, then this is a benighted theocracy.
Thirdly, and most gravely, as Goldberg no doubt recalls from his own stint in the IDF, the laws concerning military service are different for secular and religious Israelis. In their indispensable book, Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky draw attention to the frightening world of the hesder yeshivot, the religious corps, who serve not for three years, as do other soldiers, but for eighteen months, divided into three six-month periods, in between which they “leave the army for a six-month period of talmudic study in a yeshiva wherein the presumably negative influences of having met secular Jewish soldiers are supposedly countered”2. As might be expected, the scheme of training religious fanatics in the use of state-of-the-art military equipment is not without its demerits. They elucidate:
Soldiers in Hesder Yeshivot units [...] distinguished themselves during the suppression of the Intifada; they were noted for their cruelty to Palestinians, which was from many perspectives much more severe than the Israeli army average [...] When the army commanding officers have wanted to inflict especially cruel punishment upon Palestinians or others, they have most often relied upon and used religious soldiers. In more ordinary companies, consisting of soldiers holding varying political views, some members might object to illegal cruelty and even inform media people of its use. In Hesder Yeshivot units the religious soldiers, who are anyway more cruel than most secular Jews, will not object to the orders.3
A perpetually baffling fact of American writing on Israel is how markedly it differs from its Israeli counterpart. The works of Israelis like Shahak and Levy are infused with everything the intellectual descendents of Thomas Jefferson should celebrate: unswerving commitment to reason, democracy and secularism, undergirded by a visceral contempt for injustice. Why then is their voice so persistently ignored? One of the things that has to happen in order for there to be peace in Israel is that, in the battle for the national identity, the secularists must win and the theocrats must lose (the same must happen, incidentally, on the eastern side of Jerusalem). By denying that such a battle is being waged in the first place, Goldberg only further isolates the secular camp and clears the path for the Liebermans and Lubavitchers. Let us hope that Israelis – and their sponsors in America – have more sense than to listen to him.
1 Shahak, I., Jewish History, Jewish Religion (4th edition, 2008), p. 5
2 Shahak, I., and Mezvinsky, N., Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel (2nd edition, 2004), p. 91