Israel and the Politics of Jewish Identity
The Secular-Religious Impasse
by Asher Cohen and Bernard Susser
Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. 167 pp. $36.
Reviewed by Judith Friedman Rosen
Middle East Quarterly
It's a thin volume but it contains a thorough exposé of the delicate balance of secular and religious demands in the evolution of the State of Israel. From the state's inception, the founding fathers realized that only a compromise based on a clever formula of ideological "concessions, compromises, deference, and creative ambiguities" would permit the fledgling nation to avoid a crippling internal battle. This skillful tango, known as consociationalism, was an "adaptive, unity-preserving political style" that guided Israel well through its first forty years. Through most of that time, the reigning political party (Labor) channeled the energies of the National Religious Party into nondestructive avenues by inviting it to join its coalition. This outreach was superfluous to the coalition and often contrary to the ideological beliefs of the party yet it maintained the resolve that certain Jewish observances had to be retained in order to keep a Jewish state.
Subsequently, as the Westernization of Israeli life increased, pressure to do away with traditional religious prohibitions and commandments by the secular community mounted. A vociferous anti-religious attitude was brought to the political table. Concurrently, growing numbers of the fervently religious amassed enough support to become political protagonists united to advocate their own agenda and defend and promote Israel's religious character. As the Likud party came to power, Labor lost its political hold. The parties began to splinter and coalitions became more tenuous. Compromise, mediation, and even "dubious deals that in the past lubricated the wheels of Israeli government" became increasingly difficult. As a result, the old rhythm unraveled, giving way to a "crisis-dominated relationship between secular and religious Jews" that threatens the country's integrity.
Cohen and Susser stress that although consociationalism has been failing, it can be reversed if the forces of conciliation reappear. They wisely advise leaders in both camps to restrain "the more belligerent in their own camp."
Related Topics: Israel, Jews and Judaism | Judith Friedman Rosen | Winter 2002 MEQ
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