Religion & State in Israel

This post is by Tal Harari, participant on the Career Israel Internship Program. Graduate of  the UC Santa Cruz ( BA in History of Art and Visual Culture).  Tal’s internship in Tel Aviv in with the Arts on the city level.  

There are many reasons that this country was established in 1948. A reason I hold dear to me is that the Jewish nation, race, religion (or however you’d prefer to call it) has had to flee, hide and disperse around the globe for thousands of years; Israel is the one place where all Jews are finally welcome to come and settle. As a daughter to Israeli parents, I have never felt an inkling of doubt in my belonging to this country. One’s level of religiosity or familiarity with Israeli culture should never impede one’s sense of place in Israel. Our “Religion and State Seminar” in Jerusalem exposed me to the complexity of the power struggle and issues facing society. We listened to speakers who hold stand all over the spectrum of beliefs and policy. This provoked me to evaluate my opinions and thoughts on this topic. Jessica, a double-convert to Judaism, was our opening lecturer, followed by a discussion with Yehoshua Weinberger, an American who now lives in Mea Shearim (very observant community). From this conversation I learned how much power the Rabbinate has in state law. For example, the rabbinate will not recognize someone as Jewish if he or she was not born to a Jewish mother, or converted to Judaism outside of the Orthodox tradition which is now the standard in Israel. This alienates those individuals who arrive in Israel expecting to be welcomed with open arms. I’m disappointed to learn these shortfalls of the separation between religion and state here, because I have so much pride in Israel and have returned to America every summer promoting it as a home for everyone. Yet I have hope in the changes that some people are fighting for. For example, although her views were also extreme, I was refreshed to hear Anat Hoffman’s views. This social activist shed light on the progressive efforts going on in Israel which are fighting to alter the limitations the Rabbinate puts on secular life. Hoffman’s lecture served as indication of the range of beliefs held by the Israeli community. As head of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), she established the Women of the Wall campaign to allow women to pray at the Kotel, and leads “Freedom Rides” to desegregate men and women on buses in Jerusalem. The tenacity with which she leads these campaigns was clearly reflected in her dynamic discussion with us. We must keep in mind that this country is 64 years young, thus is dynamic and constantly changing. I think that these changes will continue to be scrutinized as both progressions and regressions. Despite the unfortunate power struggle between state and religion Israel has, in my opinion, made strides to improve itself over the past few years. One of my hopes is that it will change the qualifications for what defines you as a Jew, because turning away someone who considers this part of their identity is certainly a regression. Conversely I hope that anyone who comes here can look past the very religious laws that put technical limitations on identity and simply try to connect with the people around them, who are the true pedometers of the state of Israel.

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