Status quo (Israel)

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In Israel, the term status quo (or the secular-religious status quo) refers to the political understanding between religious and secular political parties not to alter the communal arrangement in relation to religious matters, in a predominantly secular population. The established Jewish religious communities in Israel desire to maintain and promote the religious character of the state, while the secular community wishes to reduce the impact of religious regulations in their everyday lives. Occasionally, one political side seeks to make changes to inter-communal arrangements, but these are often met by fierce political opposition from the other side. The status quo preserves the established religious relations in Israel, and only small changes are usually made.

Origins[edit]

The prevailing view attributes the origins of the status quo to a letter sent by David Ben-Gurion, as chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, on 19 June 1947, to the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel,[1] in order to form a united policy to present to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), which had commenced its fact-finding tour 4 days earlier. The letter was meant to address their concerns that the emerging State of Israel will be a secular one, which might hurt the status of religion and religious institutions, as well as the values of their followers.

In the letter, David Ben-Gurion stated that neither the Jewish Agency Executive nor any other body in the country is authorized to determine in advance the constitution of the emerging Jewish State, and its secular character. One precondition from the U.N, for the establishment of the Jewish state was freedom of thought and freedom of speech to all its citizens. It was considered that the letter would satisfy the concerns of religious parties. The letter stipulated policy principles in four main areas that were considered fundamental to Orthodox Judaism:

  • Shabbat - shabbat shall be the day of rest in Israel.
  • Kashrut - kashrut shall be observed in the kitchens of official institutions of the Jewish state; but privately each individual may choose to observe or not, or how, and to what extent.
  • Family laws (marriage etc.) - preserving a single judicial system for the purpose of marriage and divorce; with marriage and divorce being conducted in rabbinical courts for Jews and by the relevant religious authorities for people of other faiths, as was already the case before; there shall be no civil marriage.
  • Education - full autonomy to the different Jewish denominations, while stipulating the minimum standards in fields such as Hebrew, Jewish history, science etc.

Despite the fact that Ben-Gurion's letter referred only to few basic issues, it has become the basis of regulating the relation between religion and State in Israel.

Personal status issues[edit]

Main article: Who is a Jew

The status quo arrangement in Israel officially recognises the authority of only the Orthodox Judaism rabbinate on all personal status issues. However, each of the main Jewish denominations has a different view of 'Who is a Jew?'. The definition has potential implications in a range of areas including the Law of Return, on nationality and other purposes. The Orthodox Judaism rabbinate has a very strict interpretation of Jewish status and conversion standards and has demanded recognition only of Orthodox conversion to Judaism. The Orthodox monopoly in Israel has for many years been criticised and a political stumbling block in the relations between the more conservative religious community and the state and secular Jews in Israel.

The Law of Return[edit]

Main article: Law of Return

The political debate over 'Who is a Jew?' has symbolized the secular-religious divide in Israel and the way it has been handled. It was the principal objective of Zionism that Palestine should be the homeland for the Jewish People. When Israel was formed in 1948, that objective was taken over by the new State. The Law of Return, enacted in 1950, stipulates that every Jew has a right to make aliyah (immigrate to Israel). Hence the importance of a clear definition of who is a Jew.

According to the halakha (Jewish law), a Jew is an individual who was born to a Jewish mother or one that converted to Judaism. Therefore, in those early days of the Jewish state, a temporary vagueness on the issue of 'Who is a Jew?' suited the Consociationalism form of democracy that exists in Israel, since every ruling provoked a political storm. Along with the recognition of the Status quo as the regulating arrangement, a political custom has evolved, in which the Ministry of Interior would be held by one of the religious parties represented in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament); the Minister of Interior is principally responsible for citizenship, residency and identity cards (Teudat Zehut). This custom is part of the principle of Consociationalist democracy that requires governmental rewards to be granted on the basis of each party's relative importance in the eyes of the political players.

Twenty years after the Law of Return was enacted, the definition of 'Who is a Jew?' was ruled to be an individual who was born to a Jewish mother, or one that has converted and is not also under any other religion at the same time. The political reality of the founding fathers of the state of Israel was one that emphasized the form of Consociationalism democracy. The pattern of this model could be seen in the Secular-religious fracture, and especially against the background of not having been implemented in other areas of divisions in the Israeli society.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Israel in the Middle East: Documents and Readings on Society, Politics, and Foreign Relations, Pre-1948 to the Present, editors Itamar Rabinovich and Jehuda Reinharz. ISBN 978-0-87451-962-4 - The Status Quo Letter DOC (Hebrew) English translation