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Gaza Evacuation Highlights Israel's Social Divide

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Israel's evacuation of Gaza highlights the serious divide between religious and secular Israelis.

This divide has been revealing itself more and more recently. Some matzah bakers say their sales are declining because secular Israelis are buying less and religious Israelis prefer a more kosher homemade matzah. Likewise, universities say enrollment in Jewish studies are declining as secular students have lost interest in these subjects and religious Israelis prefer to study it in yeshivas.

Past

With the birth of the Jewish State, the conflict between the secular and the religious communities was resolved through an agreement called the “Status Quo.”

This agreement covered issues related to religion and state. The role of the rabbinate in personal status (marriage, divorce, etc.), public observance of the Sabbath, kosher food in public institutions, separate educational systems, and more were all fixed in this social contract.

Status Quo was a “top down” agreement which leaders of the different groups initiated. Ben Gurion represented secular Israel and the Rabbis represented religious Israel.

The agreement was called Status Quo because it was meant to continue unchanged over time. Creating a fixed social contract was a way to minimize internal conflict and maximize cooperation.

The agreement’s ability to maintain internal peace was essential to Israel’s survival given the external security threats the country faced. Even though new issues arose, such as El Al and television, the Status Quo has been maintained for over 50 years.

Present

Today, Israel’s secular community feels threatened by religious coercion and the increasing political role of the religious. They resent special privileges, such as army exemptions, based on religious affiliation.

The religious camp feels threatened by secular coercion, such as public facilities that operate on the Sabbath and do not keep kosher. Religious Israelis resent the secularists' lack of knowledge about and respect for Judaism.

After over 50 years, Israel’s social contract, the Status Quo, is on the verge of collapse. The current increase in tensions between the secular and religious in Israel can be seen as a manifestation of social maturity.

Changes in Israeli society over time have been such that the original agreement no longer reflects the ideology or social outlook of either the secular or religious camp. Thus, support for this social contract has weakened. Secondly, over time socially marginal groups have gained political power in the Israeli democracy and influence in Israeli society. Thus, the debate over Jewish identity and Israel’s character has become more complex. Thirdly, when the agreement was reached, both sides assumed the other side was a temporary phenomenon. Duality is Israel's reality today.

As the country’s social contract is collapsing, a cultural war is erupting. In this cultural war, the secularists believe in the supremacy of Israel’s democratic government and the religious believe in the supremacy of God’s Law. The secular camp wants Israel to be a modern State that protects individual liberties, and religious camp wants Israel to be a Torah state that maintains Jewish laws and tradition.
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