Israel’s Dual Identity and its Contradictions

By Emma Vorchhemier

Israelis are checked for Chametz prior to entering hospital, the subject of much controversy. Photo: Dudu Grushpan

Israel is a lot of things — a Democracy in the Middle East, a tech center known as the “startup nation,” an extremely powerful country, and the home to Jews all over the world. Israel has established itself as both a religious state and a democratic one. These two identities sometimes cooperate with one another and can even overlap in certain cases. However, there are times when it becomes difficult to reconcile these realities. The religion and state conflict has always been a polarizing issue in Israel, and, unfortunately, this overarching tension has only deepened the divide between the more orthodox groups in Israel who strive for a more religious state and those who identify as secular (or chilonim), who seek a more democratic state. Yedidya Stern, Vice President of the Israel Democracy Institute, explains that “Jews in Israel have two cultural foundations: Western-liberal culture and traditional Jewish culture. How is it possible… to function in a situation of dual cultural loyalty, when the two cultures are sometimes at odds with each other?” This question highlights the central problem with Israel’s statehood: how can you effectively govern a nation when both the country and the people residing in it have two separate ideals? Stern calls Israel’s confusing reality an “identity crisis,” which is a major factor of its political instability.

Israel’s government structure reflects this same tension of religion and state. Israel’s government is composed of a legislative branch (the Knesset), an executive branch, (the prime minister and cabinet), and a judicial branch which is independent of the other two, and which includes both secular and religious courts.

The Knesset swearing-in ceremony in Jerusalem, on April 6, 2021. Photo: Alex Kolomoisky/POOL

Jewish religious courts are under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Prime Minister. These courts have jurisdiction over many issues, such as prohibited behaviors on Shabbat (the Jewish day of rest), Kashrut (laws pertaining to food), Jewish burial, marriage, and divorce laws. More controversial topics covered by the courts include mandatory military conscription in the Ultra-Orthodox communities, conversion to Judaism, and public transportation on the Sabbath (which is prohibited by Jewish law on Saturdays). Though the Rabbinate has a lot of power through their control of the Jewish courts, the Supreme Court retains the highest authority, as it maintains as the final say over all religious courts. So, after the religious courts make a decision, the Supreme Court may decide to overturn it if it finds it to be unlawful.

One such example, which was very controversial, unfolded just a few days ago regarding prohibitions on the Jewish holiday of Passover. On Passover, there is a strict command which forbids eating, seeing, and owning any food that is chametz (this includes bread, or any leavened products). This tradition is easy to uphold within the private sphere of one’s home, but becomes difficult to sustain in some public forums in Israel.

In 1986, the Knesset passed “The Matzah law” which explicitly states that any Chametz could not be sold or displayed by business owners during the Passover holiday each spring. In 2002, there were efforts by Knesset members to overturn the bill, claiming that such a law has “no place in a Democratic state.” Since then, the opposition in the Knesset to the bill has only increased, specifically focusing on this law’s repercussions in hospitals. Accordingly, each Passover, patients, family members, visitors, doctors, and nurses must all comply and avoid bringing any chametz into the hospitals.

Passover in a religious home in Israel, where there is no Chametz. Photo: Nati Shohat/Flash90

Voices from the secular population were especially outraged with the continued enforcement of the “Matzah Law,” since patients cannot generally leave the hospital, and should be fed normally, they argue, even on Passover. After years with no further developments of this law, in April of 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that the “Matzah Law” was illegal, declaring that hospitals do not have the authority to forbid chametz or to search individuals for chametz before entering. Despite this ruling, Hadassah, Jerusalm’s largest hospital, asked that people abide by the original “Matzah Law” ahead of Passover this year. This request received harsh condemnation from Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, who sent a letter to Hadassah stating, “it is our duty to allow each patient to behave in their own way, without coercion.” This statement set off a string of angry responses, most notably by a fellow member of the same coalition in Knesset, Idit Silman. She released a bitter statement directed towards Horowitz and her coalition as a whole, where she expressed disappointment with the standards of Israel’s majority Jewish population. This stunt by Horowitz was the last straw for Silman, who has repeatedly disagreed with some of her coalition’s religious policies and their leniencies. She therefore has decided to step down from her position as chairwoman in Bennett’s coalition and Yamina party, thereby forfeiting her group’s 61–59 majority in the Knesset. She has moved from Bennett’s coalition to the opposition coalition, now creating an even split of 60 to 60 members in each sector of the legislature.

The implications of Silman’s resignation could be catastrophic for Israel’s already unstable government. Silman’s switch to the opposition and the loss of the majority for Bennett means that the Knesset will more than likely not be able to successfully pass any legislation.

It is clear that Israel is a state consisting of strong-hearted individuals and many government ministers with starkly different views on religion and state. While these ideologies can be a point of cooperation and overlap, opposing views can also lead to anger, a divided society, disappointment with one’s own country, and, ultimately, a messy and unstable government. Jews in Israel cannot let their cultural and political differences divide the nation. Hopefully, citizens of Israel will work to resolve the state’s innate contradictions and form a stable government. As Stern explains, “Jews in Israel need open, continuing, and tolerant discourse among the people with different identities in order to increase understanding.”

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