Miriam Friedman

Miriam Friedman is a sophomore studying International Relations, and Creative Writing at Princeton University. She has spent time studying Politics in several regions of the world including Israel, India, Iceland, Romania, and Italy. 

Israel is a small country troubled by great tensions. When Israel declared independence from Britain in 1948, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria immediately invaded. Although Israel won the war—surmounting a major external challenge to its sovereignty—the country still had many internal difficulties to resolve. And, with sites considered holy to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity within its effective territory, Israel continues to be grounds for confrontation. Moreover, because it is a State where religion and politics are intimately connected, the influence of Jewish religious ideals is often stifling, as it promotes regulations that are unequal to its heterogeneous population. This frustration with a reliance on antiquated Jewish practices continues to be a prominent source of friction today, and contributes to the melting pot that is the current Israeli State.

The interaction between religion and State affairs is a delicate balancing act. The place of Halacha, the Jewish code of ethics, in Israel’s law is one of the most divisive disputes in the State today. Though the source of Halacha is rooted in the Torah, it was not explicitly revealed by the sages, and therefore has no clear source. As a result, there is intense disagreement as to what is truly religiously required. But in addition to the divide between secular and religious Jews and their belief in the necessity of Halacha, there is also a national divide in Israel between Jews and Muslims. The tension in law of these two groups is closely related: the more Israel accentuates traditional Jewish elements in its public culture, the more appealing it is to Jewish religious individuals, but the more intolerable is the condition for Israel’s Muslim and other minority citizens.

This paper explores the complicated relationship between Israel’s reliance on Halacha and its use of secular laws to govern the State. It rejects the notion that a complete separation of church and State is either necessary or feasible; instead, it concludes that to increase equality in a State with changing demographics, Israel must rethink its principles of division and focus on impartial ways to unite its people. This will require being more tolerant of differing opinions and practices, and emphasizing the condition of “Israeliness” over its “Jewishness.” Though there are segments of the population who would be averse to this proposition, the opposition is far smaller than it may first appear. Furthermore, promoting this aspect of Israel’s character would not fundamentally change an individual’s identity or beliefs. Doing so would simply create a bond among members of a previously divided nation. The most effective way to implement this policy would begin with a change in the way the State takes pride in its character.

The motivation for this paper comes from the dearth of research available on this subject. Though information on the Israeli legal system and its human rights injustices exists, there is little literature that evaluates the interaction between religious laws and unequal governance in Israel at length. This paper outlines the theories behind the creation of the State, details some of the major tensions that result from this religious rule, and finally, presents a mechanism most likely to promote increased equality in the future.