Religion in Israel Today
May 1972

“Religion in Israel Today,” Ensign, May 1972, 59

Holy Land Issue

Religion in Israel Today

Religion has historically been more than just a faith for the Jew; it has been his way of life, involving many of his economic, social, and political attitudes and activities as well as his spiritual life. Religion has been of the highest value in enabling the Jews to survive the persecutions of the past 1900 years, but the return of many Jews to the land of ancient Israel has been motivated by other reasons that are not religious.

From the time that early proponents of the return began their campaign, a combination of human and divine motivations has existed. For example, one of the early Zionists, Jehudah Alkalai (1798–1878), thought it no irreverence for human effort to begin to prepare the way for the miraculous redemption. And certainly a practical (political) way to try to save Jews from a repetition of such atrocities as the “Damascus blood libel” was, in his opinion, to persuade the Turkish rulers to allow a modest return of Jews to the land of their ancient forefathers.

Self-emancipation, self-preservation, and cultural, national, political, and practical salvation, as preached by the great essayists of Zionism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were among the motivations to return to Zion.

A few religious Jews have always lived in and about Jerusalem, and additional religious idealists established little communities before the 1880s. The majority of immigrants thereafter have been predominantly secular Zionists. They numbered more than 80,000 in the first three aliyot or migrations between 1894 and 1924. Another 80,000 quickly followed during the 1920s.

Many of the religious, self-styled “guardians of the city” and many of the early religious Zionists were concerned by the overwhelming numbers and the secular spirit of the newcomers. When 160,000 came in the decades before and during World War II, seeking escape from slaughter, the population of the Holy Land was composed of many kinds of Jews. Then, with the achievement of statehood in 1948, the floodgates really opened and a million more came seeking refuge by 1951. About 100,000 continued to stream in every year until the early 1960s. By 1964 immigration tapered off to about 50,000 each year.

It is true that many of the immigrants of the 1950s were religious (primarily of the Sephardic communities of North Africa and Asia), but it is now estimated that about 85 percent of the Jewish inhabitants of Israel are not religiously observant.

The people who immigrated to Palestine were not disorganized masses. Secular Zionists organizations have been mentioned in connection with the great motivational forces at the turn of the century. Specifically religious Zionist groups also sponsored settlement of the land. These became the religious political parties now found in Israel’s body politic.

The four predominant religious parties functioning in Israeli politics have been the Mizrachi, Hapoel Hamizrachi, Agudat Israel, and Poalei Agudat Israel; however, they did not originate as political parties and they did not begin, for the most part, in Palestine. All of them originated long before the advent of Israel’s statehood, and two began even before the time of the British mandate government there.

Mizrachi is the oldest of the parties. Founded as a religious Zionist organization by those who did not favor the secular return and redemption of the land, it became a separate faction from other Zionists in 1902. With the rise of Jewish self-government, it became a political party in Palestine in 1918. In the 1960s, Orthodox Jews of the middle economic classes constituted the main body of Mizrachi membership.

Mizrachi leaders have been willing to support the moderate economic policies of the Mapai labor party in exchange for support for their legislation to protect certain rights. They have opposed military service for the Orthodox Jews and for women, and they have sponsored religious education, Sabbath laws, and kosher food regulations.

Hapoel Hamizrachi has been the party of the orthodox religious, working class of the Jews, who have sought to combine some of the ideals and practices of socialism with religious ideals and ways of life. Founded in Jerusalem in 1922 as the Mizrachi Labor Federation, it has grown to be the most popular of the religious parties as reckoned by numerical membership.

Though cooperative with Mizrachi in some educational promotions, Hapoel Hamizrachi is a more socialistic party; it has promoted communal agricultural settlements and trade unionism. Unlike Mizrachi, it has had a strong program for absorbing the flood of new immigrants, and during the 1950s it attracted into its rural settlements many of the flood of Sephardic immigrants from Arab countries. It also promotes a progressive youth movement. For voting purposes, Mizrachi and Hapoel Hamizrachi have cooperated in single party lists over the years and have worked in coalitions with Mapai.

Agudat Israel was founded in 1913 in Katowice, Germany, for the purpose of countering the drift of Jewry away from ghetto life, away from the Yeshivot, and away from Orthodox observances. After World War I, its real organized life began with its first major congress in 1923. Always opposed to secular Zionism, it finally achieved a policy of favoring the resettlement of the Holy Land but strictly as a society based upon Torah law. (The traditionally religious had expected a return to the land only with the advent of the Messiah.)

The major means chosen by this organization to further the knowledge and practices of the law has been through promotion of the Yeshivot, a type of theological seminary for the training of Orthodox religious leaders. It has always insisted on maintenance of its own schools for Orthodox children in Palestine and Israel and has accordingly remained aloof from the secular school system. For a time it refrained from political activity and even from participation in economic aid from the Jewish National Fund (because that agency supports secular Zionism also). It has consistently opposed the drafting of a secular constitution for the state of Israel, because that is considered to be an infringement of the secular upon the domain of the divine law. Agudat Israel membership, which has been built up in recent years mostly by Jews from Asia and North Africa, has engaged in political activity out of the stark necessity of participating or perishing.

Poalei Agudat Israel is made up of working class people who hold religious views like those of the Agudah, but they have a more practical view of what man can do to help in implementing the divine program of settlement of the Holy Land.

This party was founded in Poland in 1922 by the parent Agudah organization, but sharp differences soon developed over colonization policies. Because of the contributions of this workers’ religious party in setting up agricultural settlements, its active participation in the defense activities of the militant Hagana before and during the war for independence, and its work in aiding illegal immigration during the last years of the mandate period and staffing the vital refugee camp leadership, Poalei Agudat Israel has won considerable acclaim in Israel. It has worked with both the Jewish agency and the Histadrut, and though it does not officially belong to Histadrut, it participates in trade union activities.

While the Mizrachi parties have grown somewhat closer together over the years, the Agudah parties have grown further apart, although they did unite for a time politically in the Torah Religious Front.

Beyond these organizations, but numbered among the religious inhabitants of Israel, are certain ultraorthodox, often ultraobscurantist people such as the Natorei Karta, “guardians of the city,” who for generations have lived on charities in Jerusalem and prayed for the messianic redemption of the land. They cannot be counted as a political party, but their presence and voting power has sometimes been seriously considered in election times by the other religious parties.

The decisions of the United Nations General Assembly that created Israel as a national state on November 29, 1947, specified that independent Arab and Jewish states be established and that a special international regime for the city of Jerusalem be set up. Further, it specified that both of the new states proclaim and insure the following: “No discrimination of any kind shall be made between the inhabitants on the ground of race, religion, language, or sex. … The family laws and personal status of the various minorities and their religious interests, including endowments, shall be respected.”

The declaration of independence of the state of Israel also includes such principles: “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all of its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the Prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

To implement such ideals is no easy task among the heterogeneous populace embracing the whole spectrum, from the religious who hold that God is the only true government to the politically cynical who do not trust any government.

To deal with religious matters, the British High Commissioner of Palestine established in 1921 a rabbinical council consisting of two chief rabbis and six associate rabbis, elected by a gathering of Jewish community leaders. It has judicial authority in matters of marriage and divorce, alimony, confirmation of wills of members of the Jewish communities, and certain other personal matters in cases wherein both parties to an action have given consent to its jurisdiction, as well as in certain matters of endowments, gifts, and religious practices. The rabbinical council is supported by a budget from the government.

The Moslem communities in Israel are similarly provided with their own religious courts and counsels, which are likewise sustained financially.

In the early days of the British mandate, when the first beginnings of Jewish community government were being developed, the Orthodox religious efforts opposed creation of secular state functions. For example, after the Third Preparatory Assembly (December 1918) had drafted plans for the election of a constituent assembly and had specified the qualifications for voters to participate, bitter struggles were perpetrated by Orthodox religious factions over the issue of giving women the privilege of voting. Even after the matter was once resolved, opposition again arose, causing further delays, with the result that it was eighteen months before the election actually took place.

Religious intransigence also delayed decisions as to the assembly’s tenure until 1921. In spite of all difficulties, an elected assembly did manage to approve a budget and to elect an executive body of its members to implement its directives. This executive body, which was the first real Jewish government in Palestine, was called the National Council or Vaad Leumi.

It was intended that the Vaad Leumi should draft a constitution and set up a system of internal taxation for the Jewish community, but religious parties blocked the drafting of a secular constitution, considering it an infringement upon the divine prerogative.

The Vaad Leumi was not accorded official recognition by the mandatory authority until December 1927 because of opposition to it by the ultraorthodox.

It is obvious from the historical background that a ministry of religious affairs was needed to supervise those functions of government related to religious life. Such a ministry has accordingly been established in the government of Israel and is comprised of the following departments: Jewish Religious Affairs, Rabbinate and Rabbinical Courts, Religious Councils, Moslem and Druze Religious Affairs, and Christian Communities Affairs.

In recent years the following have been considered the crucial religious problems: (1) the number of Jewish children attending mission schools; (2) the dearth of meat in Israel; (3) observance of the Sabbath; (4) compulsory national service for women; (5) dissension over religious education in the schools. In addition, religious control has been deemed urgent for marriage and divorce practices. It has been argued that to allow authority for civil marriage and secular divorce in Israel would disrupt the solidarity of Jews the world over and would lead to increased intermarriage of Jews with non-Jews.

A statement about the necessity of Sabbath laws in Israel was made by a Mizrachi leader when he was minister of communication in 1951. He asserted that the only way to give everyone a day of rest and not have some services imposed upon some workers, either for public utilities or for private gain by some employers, would be to have a law that would make the kind of Sabbath available to all that the Torah and the Shulhan Aruch originally intended.

Over the centuries, wherever they have been, Jews have provided for the education of their children. Virtually all of the early immigrants had firm convictions about the place of education in society, and they provided schools according to their social, economic, and religious convictions. These schools, with their own systems of finance and control, continued serving more than 100,000 students for nearly a year and a half after the establishment of the state of Israel. Then the Compulsory Education Law of September 1949 was enacted, establishing the principle of universal, free, compulsory education for all children ages five through seventeen. Some of the costs after that time were borne by the national government budget. Finally, on August 12, 1953, after five years of bitter debate, the Knesset was able to pass the State Education Law. In addition to secular state education, religious state education was also made available.

Today nearly 40 percent of all elementary schools have some religious emphasis and about 25 percent of the children attend such schools.

The conscription of women into the armed services of Israel has been bitterly opposed by the religious parties. Important concessions were won by them with regard to Orthodox girls and women through the action both of the chief rabbinate and the Mizrachi.

Two other provisions in the defense service laws must be credited to the religious bloc: Kosher food is provided for the army, at considerable expense to the budget, and on Sabbath and festival days all work is to cease except operations that are vital to the security of the state, the army itself, or its installations. Non-Jews are also given the right to observe their own Sabbaths and festivals as days of rest.

Today there are many evidences that Orthodox religion is still viable in Israel. These include the eating of matzah at Passover by an estimated 99 percent of the Jewish population, abstention from sea bathing or car driving on Yom Kippur by almost all citizens, the strict observance of most religious holidays and festivals, and great interest in reading and studying the Bible, including a daily chapter read over the radio and listened to in almost every home.

A visitor from Israel to the United States asserted that there is “complete religious liberty in Israel.” In response to American critics of religious intrusions into the freedoms of the Israelis, he asserted that there is far less reason for concern over the laws concerning Sabbath, kashrut, marriage, and divorce than there is for attention to the need for religious reform in order to provide Israeli youth with the basic values of religion in their lives.

A young visitor from Israel declares: “The question facing us is, What do we believe in, what is the position of man in the universe, of man in society?” He believes that the youth of Israel are ready for answers.

In Israel’s past there arose great prophets and great men to meet the needs of the time. Why should there now be no one to rise to meet the need of the present and future crises? Elijah can still plant in the hearts of the children the covenants made with the fathers, so that the hearts of the children may turn to the fathers and fulfill their destiny before the land is smitten with a curse.

Political imposition or legal requirements and compulsions will not likely save the faith, promote the knowledge of God, or increase trust in the hope for the Messiah, but there are other hopes. The law shall yet go forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

  • Dr. Rasmussen, chairman of the Department of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University, has prepared many course outlines, home study courses, and articles. He serves as high councilor in the BYU Fourth Stake and lives in Orem 15th Ward, Sharon Stake.

Russian Orthodox Jew. (Photo by Laurel G. Cole.)

Chief Rabinnate Building, Jerusalem. (Photo by Israel Embassy, Washington, D.C.)

Mea Shearim, Orthodox Jewish quarter outside the city walls. (Photo by Laurel G. Cole.)

Interior of a synagogue in Tel Aviv. (Photo By Israel Embassy, Washington, D.C.)

Group at Bar Mitzvah ceremony (above). The small black box fastened on the brow, called a phylactery, contains prayers. (Photo by Laurel G. Cole.)

Young Orthodox Jews in the old city (left). (Photo by Laurel G. Cole.)

Synagogue at the Hebrew University. (Israel Embassy photo.)