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Religion and Political Accommodation in Israel

Don-Yehia Eliezer
Abstract of publication #4/2

The study analyzes the patterns for dealing with disputes related to the issue of religion and state in Israel. It buttresses the central argument of the study, namely, that the model of the politics of accommodation is the key to the success of the Israeli political system in peacefully overcoming the profound contradictions in the religious sphere. The concept of accommodation refers to pragmatic solution to divisive conflicts by abandoning the principle of unilateral majority decisions and including representatives of the main groups in the organs of government and decision-making.

Leiphardt uses the term "consociational democracy" to refer to a political system characterized by the politics of accommodation. Consociational democracy is incompatible with the classical model, which is based on the principle of majority rule and agreement by the minority to accept this decision on questions in dispute. It is an alternate model of democracy, in which decisions are taken through a process of deliberation and negotiation between political elites that represent the various groups in society. In this context, the representatives of the majority evince a willingness to self-restraint and take account of the minority groups on issues that are of particular importance for them. As a result, there is post-factum agreement even in areas where there was no consensus, and the decision reflects a balance between the divergent approaches and interests. Such was the nature of the status quo principle adopted in the early years of statehood with regard to the relationship between state and religion.

The status quo principle that serves as the cornerstone of the politics of accommodation is in fact a dynamic principle that allows for development and change. The vicissitudes in this domain stem from various factors. Particularly conspicuous among them are demographic and cultural changes. The major demographic shift in the wake of the mass aliya (immigration) in the first years of the state was the main cause of the crisis in education that undermined the arrangements established during the pre-state period. It led to the establishment of new and more appropriate arrangements to the situation that had developed.

Pressure to change conventional arrangements in the religious domain developed in the wake of the wave of the immigration from the former Soviet Union. The overwhelmingly secular bent of these immigrants is one of the chief factors for the proliferation of the breaches of local bylaws and regulations regarding Sabbath observance and kashrut (Jewish dietary laws). The significant proportion of non-Jews among the immigrants generated pressures that led to options for secular burial. The composition of the aliya from the former Soviet Union has also intensified the pressure on the status-quo with regard to marriage and divorce. Nevertheless, in this realm there have not been any changes yet, and it may be assumed that any that do eventuate will be of a limited nature.

Demographic changes also influenced the eruption of disputes and produced changes in conventional accords having to do with the operation of motor vehicles on the Sabbath. These changes, however, are on the local level.Their chief manifestation is population shifts that lead to an ultra-Orthodox "takeover" of certain streets and neighborhoods,followed by increased pressure to close them to traffic on Sabbaths and holidays.Such changes are typical chiefly of Jerusalem and Bene Beraq.Whereas the secular population has in practice acquiesced in the ultra-Orthodox character of Bene Beraq,they continue to wage war over the character of Jerusalem.

Demographic changes are apt to influence processes of cultural change, but the latter may also stem from other factors, such as socioeconomic changes and the impact of foreign cultures. Changes in the religious status-quo arrangements in areas such as Sabbath observance and kashrut reflect to a large extent the intensification of individualistic and permissive inclinations in Israeli society,whose manifestations include the rejection of any restriction on individual freedoms for religious or ideological reasons. Added to this are developments in the economic sphere and leisure-time patterns, such as a rise in the standard of living and increased consumption of entertainment and recreation services. These processes strengthen the unwillingness to be coerced by those religious injunctions that are seen as infringing upon an individual's lifestyle and convenience.

On the other hand, an increasing willingness to accept ideological and social pluralism is evident in Israeli society, which includes respect for the right of distinct subgroups to live in their own residential districts in accordance with their own values and way of life. This may explain to a large extent the disposition to settle over regulations and arrangements that protect the religious character of streets and neighborhoods that are populated by observant Jews. From this aspect, the struggle over Jerusalem's Bar-Ilan Street is an exception, to be explained by the particular circumstances of the struggle, such as the fact that the street is a major traffic artery and the perception of the campaign as part of the overall battle for the character of the city.

Significant disparities exist, with regard to the direction of development and its scope and pace, between different arenas of dispute on religion and state questions. These differences have to do with the nature of the subject of dispute, the pattern of the division of positions, the conflicting parties' sources of power and influence, and the intensiveness of their positions. The examples cited indicate that special importance should be ascribed to the factor of intensity. The more steadfast and a particular side is in the struggle, the greater are its chances of emerging victorious. The degree of intensiveness itself is influenced by various factors, and in particular by a sense that one is standing on the front line and waging a defensive struggle against threats to sacred norms and ways of life or vital interests. This can explain the success of the religious camp in its struggles to protect the status of religious education and to prevent the drafting of yeshiva students and religious girls. It can also explain the success of the anti-religious in matters they view as having particular importance, such as the Reform and Conservative struggle against the "Who Is a Jew" amendment.

Despite the changes that have taken place in arrangements in the religious sphere, the principles of the politics of accommodation are still observed in Israel. In recent years, there have indeed been attempts to infringe these principles, particularly during the term of the 13th Knesset, when the Government coalition was based on a partnership between the parties Labor and Meretz. The passage of the two Basic Laws of 1992 and the renewed demands to enact a constitution can be viewed as manifestations of a trend to alter the patterns of concessional politics. The changes in the system of government introduced by the law for the direct election of the prime minister can also be interpreted in this fashion.

Nevertheless, to the extent that there have been attempts to change the politics of accommodation in the religious domain, these were indirect and not particularly effective. It is conspicuous that even during the term of the 13th Knesset there were no explicit and far-reaching changes in the principles of the religious status quo, even though there were no religious parties in the coalition or their power in it was extremely restricted. Similarly, one should not assume that there will be any major changes in the status quo in the opposite direction, despite the extremely strong position of the religious parties in the new government. The chief reason for this is that the status quo principle is part of the broader model of consociational politics. It ultimately reflects not one pattern or another of political power relations but recognizes the need for cooperation and compromise in order to resolve arguments and repair fissures in the sociopolitical fabric.