Religion and Secularism in Israel: Between Politics and Sub-Politics

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Introduction Contemporary Israel is characterised by a secular-religious clash, sometimes described as a ‘culture war’, a highly volatile example of a world trend. This religious-secular struggle involves, on the one hand, a territorial debate over the future borders of Israel and, on the other hand, a struggle over the shape of the public sphere. The border debate concerns the future of the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. Israeli politics is divided between ‘doves’ who support a territorial compromise and the formation of a Palestinian state and ‘hawks’ who oppose territorial compromise. Opposition to Israel’s withdrawal from the territories is often based not only on security concerns but also on a significant religious ideology, which negates any compromise over the ‘promised land’. The struggle over the public sphere concerns both the status of Israel as a Jewish state and the role of religion in public life. While secular Israelis feel constrained by religious rules and regulations, religious Israelis are concerned with the weakening of religion’s influence in public life and the consequential secularisation of Israeli society. Overall, in Israel religion and politics are perceived as intertwined in both ways and, consequently, supposedly underline the tense relations between religious and secular in Israel, as well as the perceived growing potential for a ‘culture war’. The territorial debate and the struggle over the public sphere, however, as will be argued below, do not necessarily constitute a ‘culture war’. In the debate over territory, not only do dovish and hawkish positions gradually overlap with secularism and religiosity but, in addition, these positions are played out centrally in the political arena. But, conversely, struggles over the role of religion in public life are often absent from the formal political arena and are determined elsewhere in what is referred to here, following Ulrich Beck (1994, 1997), as ‘subpolitics’. Interestingly, until the late 1960s, politics and religion in Israel centred on the public sphere, where religious political parties sought to maintain their power, relatively indifferent to territorial questions. It was only after the 1967 war where a dynamic religious camp emerged, perceiving itself as leader and standard bearer of ‘true Zionism’, which brought the territorial debate to centrestage. Over time, however, struggles over the public sphere have not disappeared or lost significance but, for reasons explained below, have, at least partially, shifted towards ‘sub-politics’. Interactions between religion and politics in Israel, as this chapter demonstrates, are complex, dynamic and do not adhere to the strict contours of a ‘culture war’ where political and social hostility are rooted in different systems of moral understanding translated into competing sets of principles and ideals (Hunter 1991: 42). I will begin by establishing the theoretical connections between religion and politics through discussion of the ‘culture war’ scenario. The second part will describe two developments that supposedly highlight the culture war in Israel: (1) collapse of the secular-religious modus vivendi in the public sphere - known as the ‘status quo’ - and (2) strong links that have developed between religion and politics on the issue of the future of the occupied territories. While the latter emerges as a political event that resonates with a culture war, the former translates into different struggles - such as Sabbath, nonkosher meat and marriage - that gradually shifted from ‘politics’ to ‘subpolitics’.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationReligion and Politics in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa
EditorsJeffrey Haynes
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781135262105
ISBN (Print)9780415477130
StatePublished - 28 Sep 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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