Brown University

For God or Country? Religion and Israeli Democracy by Matthew Jarrell @ Brown University

Israel is a small nation, about the size of New York City in population and the state of New Jersey in land area. It was established in 1948 as a Jewish state, and its national symbols, institutions, and cultural practices remain thoroughly Jewish in character. Its citizens are remarkably politically homogeneous: 92 percent of Israeli Jews position themselves in the center or on the right of the political spectrum. Surprising, then, that Israel faces a crisis of polarization so severe that it threatens to upend its fragile democratic order.

Though there is very little space, Israel’s population is highly fractured. With the exception of major cities, most notably Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem, Arabs and Jews live in separate towns, attend separate schools, and are subject to largely separate codes of law. But within the Jewish community itself, there are also seemingly impenetrable divides. Jewish Israelis of similar religiosity tend to congregate within like-minded communities. Some areas, such as the towns Bnei Brak and Modi’in Ilit and certain neighborhoods of Jerusalem, are populated almost entirely by ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews who maintain a strict and isolated way of life—and the current municipal administration in Jerusalem has strengthened the boundaries between Haredim and other Israelis by, among other things, reorganizing schools to separate Haredi students from others. Many settlements in the West Bank, particularly ones deep inside the territory, are home to right-wing religious nationalists (datiim). Portions of Tel Aviv and Haifa contain mostly secular Jews (hilonim). Particularly between Haredim and other demographics, there is precious little contact. The Israeli Unity Index showed in 2015 that 45 percent of Haredim had no interaction with secular Jews. Both Haredim and hilonim also demonstrated averseness to having a family member of the other group.

Lilliana Mason (2015) suggests that partisan sorting in the United States creates meaningful gulfs between segments of the electorate in spite of the fact that those segments may agree on issue positions. In Israel, the situation is nearly the exact opposite. Political identity wise, there is very little to separate Israeli Jews. Whether secular, traditional, religious or Haredi, Jews in Israel demonstrate sympathy for right-wing parties. This is reflected in the fact that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud party has held power for eight years without a meaningful challenge, and has successfully incorporated various Haredi parties into his coalition. While partisan identities do not affect the outcome of the Israeli democratic process very much, the situation is different with regard to positions on the issues. In his 2009 book Going to Extremes, Cass Sunstein shows that not only do individuals within like-minded communities tend to become more extreme in their views, but separation from society is also an efficient way to create a more extreme community. The physical and ideological space between Haredim and other Israelis is indeed indicative of the huge amount of polarization on issues of religious observance and societal decorum within the country. While 96 percent of Haredim and 85 percent of datiim support completely shutting down public transportation for Shabbat, just 6 percent of hilonim agree. Military conscription, an important cornerstone of Israeli society, is currently not in effect for Haredi youth—90 percent of hilonim support reversing this, while 83 percent of Haredim oppose conscription. The vast chasms have engineered a society in which members of each group see the other in increasingly harsh terms. In protests to oppose conscription earlier this year, Haredim in Jerusalem physically and verbally harassed soldiers and burned one in effigy. The Sephardi Chief Rabbi of the country made comments in May degrading women who do not dress modestly. “A woman is not an animal, she must keep her dignity. To be modest is her dignity,” he said.

Why does this massive discrepancy in vision for the country matter to Israeli democracy? Perhaps the most damning statistics of all are these: while most Israeli Jews (though considerably lower numbers of Haredim) see Israel’s status as a Jewish state as compatible with democracy, 89 percent of Haredim and 65 percent of modern Orthodox Israelis believe that principles of halakha, or Jewish law, should take precedence over democratic principles if there is a contradiction between the two. Just one percent of secular Israelis agrees. 86 percent of Haredim and 69 percent of modern Orthodox believe halakha should become state law. Five percent of seculars think the same. While Haredim and modern Orthodox are outnumbered in today’s Israel, projections suggest that it will not always be this way. 63 percent of Haredi families have three to six children and a further 28 percent have seven or more. Israeli authorities project that by 2059, their population could grow to as many as 5.84 million, out of a maximum projected total of 20.6 million. With their numbers exploding, Haredi Jews will wield more power as time passes, and their shaky support for democracy will command a louder voice in the Knesset.

Population growth among Haredim is unlikely to cease, and Israelis who value democracy over religious law are rightly concerned. It will be difficult to reverse the process of polarization—by nature, Haredi and other highly religious communities take pride in the preservation of their lifestyles and in their distance from modern and secular society. The natural process of segmentation and isolation has widened the gap between worldviews to such an extent that it seems nearly impossible to imagine secular and religious Israelis reconciling them. But the doomsday scenario of Israel, by definition a state for the world’s Jews, devolving into a state for only certain Jews who practice their faith a certain way requires a process of rapprochement between these communities. The mayor of Jerusalem’s decision to allocate schools in formerly mixed neighborhoods to Haredi authorities and transfer non-Haredi students to other parts of the city is thus entirely wrongheaded and will exacerbate the problem. Members of both communities will need to reach across the divide and pull their like-minded groups together for a meaningful conversation about the future of their country.

Photo by dedube (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


  1. Dania Helou

    November 9, 2017 at 6:09 pm

    Is the increasing polarization of various Jewish communities in Israel threatening Israeli democracy? Given the Pew survey sample included 5,601 Israeli adults, including Jewish residents of the West Bank and Arab residents of East Jerusalem, why is it an issue if Israel’s religious groups are becoming increasingly polarized especially considering the lack of opposition to the far-right policies of Netanyahu’s Likud party?

    While secular Jews are at odds with Orthodox Jews foreboding a turbulent future for Israel, this today only minimally impacts their lives which is an extraordinarily different reality for the 25.2% of non-Jews living in Israel major and East Jerusalem.
    The preferential and unequal treatment of Jews to non-Jews has always invalidated the notion of “Israeli democracy.” This is evident in the active laws of the 1950 Law of Return allowing for only Jewish people the right to immigrate to Israel; the 1950 Absentee Landlord Property Law permitting the Israeli government to take over Palestinian properties in East Jerusalem; the Admissions Committee Law granting admissions committees in hundreds of Israeli communities to reject housing applicants based on their “social suitability;” the anti-BDS law banning individuals from entering Israel if they support the boycott movement; the Jewish Nation-State Bill prioritizing Israel’s Jewish character over democratic principles. To name a few.

    Arabs in Israel proper do not live under separate codes of law despite living in separate cities; everything goes through the Israeli government including marriage certificates, taxes, property papers, etc. Regardless of these matters, settlers are free to do as they please in the West Bank while Palestinians exist under Israel’s unequal application of the military law. Furthermore, Israel’s long-standing policy of demolishing Palestinian homes has taken a new flare: done as a punitive measure against terrorism. If so, then why not for the Jewish perpetrators?

  2. Margo Blank

    December 11, 2017 at 10:34 pm

    Matthew, I thought it was really interesting how you selected this story to evaluate the effect that Haredim have on the present and future status of Israel’s democracy. It is distressing that Mason’s insights on partisanship do not apply to Israel. It’s funny because in the U.S. we see social issues as being the easiest to change minds on and we consider empathy to be the way to get voters to meet each other halfway. There are plenty of videos online, including a Heineken commercial, about political unity being possible if we just meet and speak to people on the outside of our bubbles. But in Israel, every “side” does know what the others have to offer because of the country’s dense population centers and because of its relatively small total population. The isolation of communities that results in people who are embroiled in their own ideas, a phenomenon that you and Sunstein both talk about, is a problem created out of mutual choices made by Haredim and Hilonim/ Datiim. Israel’s democracy faces future disfigurement not only from the increasing population of Haredi Jews but also from the increasing population of Arab Israeli citizens and Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank. The growing population of Arab Israeli citizens have the ability to fight the government on their own behalf and on that of the Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank with voting power.

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