Birthright Israel

Those experts in Israel were on to something: Why secular-religious divide in Jewish state matters

Those experts in Israel were on to something: Why secular-religious divide in Jewish state matters

Earlier this year, I traveled to Israel with a group of U.S. religion journalists.

Through the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange, a dozen of us spent a week exploring political, social and religious issues in the Middle East.

As I wrote in a column for The Christian Chronicle, our hosts said they hoped the experience gave us an enhanced understanding of issues in that part of the world and made us think about tough questions. It certainly did that.

Another thing it did: It piqued my interest in news from Israel. For example, one topic that we spent quite a bit of time exploring was the secular-religious divide in the Jewish state. In a front-page Christian Chronicle story, I noted:

Ironically, many religious Jews took issue with Zionism, the political movement that emerged in the late 19th century and advocated reestablishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

“Many Orthodox Jews were opposed to Zionism because (they believed) it hastened what should have been God’s work,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations. “The return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel usurped God’s domain and empowered human beings to achieve that.”

Today, deep religious divisions characterize Israel — a nation of 8.7 million people that occupies a geographic area the size of New Jersey. The overall population is about 81 percent Jewish, 14 percent Muslim, 2 percent Christian, 2 percent Druze and 1 percent other.

But often, the conflict is between Jews themselves, as secular and Orthodox Jews clash over what should happen when democratic values collide with Jewish law (halakha), according to a Pew Research Center study.

It turns out that the experts who kept referencing that conflict during our group’s visit were on to something.

I’m not sure that even they realized, though, how big an issue that it would become so soon in the battle over Israel’s future.

How big?

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