Israel is experiencing a “secularization below the radar,” according to Guy Ben-Porat, a political scientist at Ben-Gurion University at a March seminar at Columbia University in New York attended by RW.
Ben-Porat, whose presentation was based on his new book, Between State and Synagogue (Cambridge University Press), said that even though Israel may not separate church and state and many Israelis may retain their strong religious attachments, religious and rabbinical authority is declining in Israel because of demographic and consumerist changes. In this process, secular and non-orthodox Israelis are finding novel ways to skirt laws and observances involving the Sabbath, kosher food, and marriage.
Ben-Porat added that many of these changes are “not on the books or official” and are not related to promoting a secular ideology or engaging in politics. In the 1980s and 1990s many secular Israelis reacted to the growing influence of Orthodox Jewish political parties with a political strategy or by appealing to the liberal Supreme Court. Yet such efforts were largely unsuccessful in challenging Orthodox influence, according to Ben-Porat. Secular and non-Orthodox Israelis have done better by creating their own “comfort zone” in a religious state through an entrepreneurial approach, with some help from broader demographic changes.
The influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union (FSU) during the last two decades has added to Israel’s secular climate, since many of these newcomers are defined as non-Jewish by the Orthodox (largely because of having non-Jewish mothers). Since their marriages cannot be certified by Orthodox authorities, many of these FSU Israelis citizens go to Cyprus to have their wedding ceremonies. “Secular entrepreneurs”—those who use the available resources to circumvent religious regulations—open businesses on the Sabbath by using the loophole of that allows non-Jewish merchants to work and thus keep their shops open.
The expansion of shopping malls outside cities that are outside of the religious regulations regarding the Sabbath and kosher food is also encouraged by the consumer lifestyle of secular Israelis. This lifestyle may be spreading, as Ben-Porat cited research showing that as much as 40 percent of Israelis who define themselves as “traditional” also admit to shopping on the Sabbath. In the same way, non-kosher food can be produced and sold if the producer or vendor is non-Jewish, thus allowing for an alternative secular market.
The bending of the rules and the other ways in which secular Israelis get around religious authority tend to “take away the political energy for fighting.” There is also a “disinclination for the orthodox party to fight beyond their own turf,” thus decreasing the chances of a major “culture war” between the religious and seculars in Israel, according to Ben-Porat.