For decades, soccer has been one of Israel’s most popular pastimes, with hundreds of professional and amateur teams vying for the skills and allegiance of the state’s players and fans. And, for just as long, those teams have taken to the pitch on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath and Israel’s only official weekly day off.
But the status quo was put in jeopardy last month when soccer players petitioned the courts with a demand not to work during the Sabbath, as required by religious law. In response, Labor Court Judge Ariella Gilzer-Kats ruled for the players, saying that Israel Football Association (IFA) games could not be held on Saturdays without a waiver granted by the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Economy Minister Aryeh Deri, who was unlikely to oblige.
For the moment, the crisis has been averted, as Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein declared last week that the court’s ruling, which relies on a rarely enforced law dating to the 1950s, would not be imposed. But he only issued a stay. Either the conflict must be resolved in two months, or the order will stand, threatening a tradition that dates to before the founding of the state. From the standpoint of the National League, the second-tier division in the IFA, there couldn’t be more at stake. “Though we respect every religion,” the League said in a public statement, “we are convinced that religion or politics should not be mixed with sports, for such a mixture would pose serious dangers to the existence of sports.”
The soccer controversy is only the most recent and most prominent in a lengthening string of incidents, which have seen religious Israelis assert legal and cultural claims against the secular state and more lax fellow citizens. It is becoming impossible to ignore the growing theocratic elements in a nation that sees itself as the only democracy in the Middle East.
Religious tension has emerged prominently at the highest echelons of politics, where, for the past year or so, haredi officials have regularly accused non-Orthodox Jews of not being Jews at all and therefore of putting the country at risk. “The moment a Reform Jew stops following the religion of Israel, let’s say there’s a problem,”David Azoulay, the minister of religious services, said in a July interview with Army Radio, implying that Orthodox practice is the religion of the state. “I cannot allow myself to call such a person a Jew.” He further accused the less strict Reform Jews of trying to “fake” the religion. These comments followed an earlier one to the effect that the Reform movement is “a disaster for the nation of Israel.” Earlier this year, the late David Rotem, who chaired the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, called Reform Jews “not Jewish” and “members of a different religion.” Former minister Shimon Ohayon—of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, currently a member of the governing coalition—labeled the Reform movement, a “big sack of trouble.”
Meanwhile, Israeli Jews increasingly interpret the identity of the state in primarily religious terms, asserting the priority of Jewish over democratic character. In 2010, 48 percent of respondents to a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute said the state’s Jewish and democratic character were equally important to them. By 2014, this number had fallen to 24 percent. Now, 39 percent favor the Jewish element and 33.5 percent the democratic element.
Though the demand for exemption from work on Saturdays and growing priority of an increasingly strict religious identity over secular alternatives do not themselves mean that theocracy is brewing, they speak to a social shift toward the embrace of Orthodoxy as Israel’s true and distinctive religion in official and civilian life. These are the conditions under which theocracy can flourish, and the signs are already here.
For example, the rabbinical court system—which has authority over halacha, or Jewish law, operating side-by-side with civil law—is being packed with haredim. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is helping. Recently haredi representatives on the court’s Appointments Committee, which includes Knesset members and is led by Netanyahu confidant Minister Yuval Steinitz, prevented the election to the court of three rabbis belonging to Tzohar, an Orthodox group nonetheless deemed too liberal by haredi standards. For Israeli Jews of all stripes, the conservatism of the court is significant. As Appointments Committee member Rachel Levmore noted, the rabbinical judges “will determine for generations to come the halachic line for all Jewish citizens in Israel . . . [including] women’s status, marriage and divorce, [and] the question of who can marry whom.” Netanyahu—through Steinitz, whose vote made the difference in the Committee—in effect declared that decisions about Jewish matrimonial laws will be made not only by the Orthodox, but by the sternest among them.
On family issues, the government is at odds with the majority of Israeli Jews, who believe that Israel should recognize secular marriages and support same-sex marriages. While technically it would be possible for the state to do so, the influence of haredi Judaism in civic matters, as evidenced by the fact that the state supports no other strands of Judaism and explicitly promotes haredim in the Chief Rabbinate, has thus far prevented change in civil law. Israeli Jews wishing to marry in the country or divorce must receive the sanction of a Chief Rabbinate dominated by haredim. That citizens who prefer liberal family law elect politicians pushing haredi interpretations may speak to a fear of defining the country as “democratic first and Jewish second,” which might damage Israel’s legitimacy as the Jewish state.
Thus, the risk of theocracy comes not so much from people’s deepening religiosity, though that is happening in some cases. Rather, perceived external threats—attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state—and internal politics—haredi control of the Ministry of Religion—are forcing a choice between exclusively religious and exclusively democratic identities. It begins to look like a battle between survival and personal freedoms. In such a contest, the former usually wins.