Religion Wrecking Israel

We’re often told religion provides “comfort.” It’s understandably comforting to imagine death isn’t death. Though a more authentically meaningful life can be lived by grasping its realities. But whatever may be said of religion in inner life, it’s bad for societies and nations. That might not be so if everyone held the same faith. However, we don’t, making religion an endless source of division and conflict.

Look at Israel.

Originally set up as a homeland and refuge for Jews in the wake of the unpleasantness they’d experienced in the Holocaust. Most nations are indeed ethnically defined. But while Jewish ethnicity is closely entwined with a religion, Israel was established as a democratic and basically secular state, closer to the American blueprint than to Iran’s theocracy.

Yet one difference from the American model has been the special status accorded to “Ultra-Orthodox” or “Haredi” Jews, a separate caste in Israeli society. Their education is solely religious, and they spend their whole lives immured in religious study rather than societally useful occupations or other productive work. This uselessness is coddled with taxpayer-funded subsidies. Furthermore, they’re exempted from the military service required of other citizens. Many of whom resent it all.

Perhaps this craziness was no big deal when the Haredi were only a small minority. But they have way more children than the Israeli average, so their population share inexorably grows. And in one key respect they’re not separate: they vote.

Mostly for parties representing their sectarian viewpoint and protecting their cosseting. Israel does not have a two-party system, no party ever wins a majority, and governments are coalitions. This often gives the Haredis outsized political clout as kingmakers. In modern times, the king they’ve made is Netanyahu.

Israel is closely divided politically — between liberal minded people favoring peace with (the Muslim) Palestinians through a two-state solution, and Jewish chauvinists whose attitude is “Fuck Palestinians.” Haredis are in the latter camp, and in the forefront of the “settler movement,” promoting expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank territories Israel has occupied since 1967. The settlements encroach upon the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants.

Those Jewish chauvinists imagine they can somehow forever keep the Palestinians down, with no real rights, confined as virtual prisoners, under grating and deeply hated Israeli occupation. Even while Palestinians too reproduce faster than the Israeli average. Israel is ultimately on a march toward national catastrophe.

The close electoral divide has made for chronic electoral stalemate. After the latest election, Netanyahu managed to return to power with a bare majority coalition by folding in the most extremist right-wing elements, giving them key cabinet posts, notably Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Jewish Power Party (its actual name), the most hard-line anti-Palestinian, put in charge of overseeing the occupied territories.

Now Netanyahu has advanced a plan to “reform” the judiciary — basically ending its independence and the separation of powers, giving the government of the day control over judicial appointments, and removing the Supreme Court’s ability to override the Knesset (parliament). Netanyahu most immediately wants to stymie corruption charges against him, working their way through the system. But it’s widely felt that this “reform” would destroy checks-and-balances. Emulating Hungary, where the Orban regime likewise gutted checks upon it, producing what Orban himself labeled an “illiberal democracy” — that is, a democracy in name only.

The last part of the 20th century saw a great global democratic flourishing. Since then there’s been a great democratic recession. If it sweeps Israel too — for so long a pillar of democracy — that’s really frightening and depressing. The sane half of Israeli society does see clearly what’s afoot, sparking massive protests against making Israel yet another authoritarian state. The outcome hangs in the balance.

Religious zealotry is a key factor in the sickness assailing the Israeli body politic. While our own U.S. Supreme Court is working assiduously to tear down our wall of separation between church and state. God help us.


One Response to “Religion Wrecking Israel”

  1. Lee Says:

    Citizens of the Israeli-occupied lands in the West Bank and Gaza cannot vote in Israeli national elections. If they had the same voting rights as Israel citizens, they would represent about 38% of the total electorate. (Doing the math … the two factions you describe average to 31% each.) One could argue that Israeli democracy has been “in name only” for quite some time already.

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