| Since biblical times, the Jews have been a people with one monotheistic faith, Judaism, embodying both a religious and a national significance. Following their expulsion from the Land of Israel some 2,000 years ago, the Jews were dispersed to other countries, mainly in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Over the centuries, they established many large Jewish communities in lands near and far where they experienced long periods of growth and prosperity, but were also subjected at times to harsh discrimination, brutal pogroms and total or partial expulsions. Each wave of persecution and violence strengthened their belief in the concept of the ‘ingathering of the exiles’ and inspired individuals and groups to return to their ancestral homeland.
By the 18th century, most of the world’s Jews lived in Europe where they were confined to ghettos and had little interaction with the societies around them. Within their communities, they managed their own affairs, adhering to the body of Jewish law (Halakhah) which had been developed and codified by religious scholars over many centuries.
The spirit of emancipation and nationalism which swept 19th century Europe also penetrated the walls of the ghetto, generating the development of a more liberal approach to education, culture, philosophy and theology. It also gave rise to several Jewish movements, some of which developed along liberal religious lines, while others espoused national and political ideologies. As a result, many Jews, and ultimately the majority, broke from traditional Jewish practice and its attendant way of life, with some striving to integrate completely into the society at large.
The Zionist movement, founded at the end of the 19th century, transformed the concept into a way of life, and the State of Israel translated it into law, granting citizenship to every Jew wishing to settle in the country. The attainment of political independence and the mass immigration which followed, doubling Israel’s Jewish population from 650,000 to some 1.3 million in the first four years of statehood (1948-52), changed the structure and fabric of Israeli society. The resultant social grouping was composed of two main elements: a majority comprised mainly of veteran settlers and Holocaust survivors from post-war Europe; and a large minority of recent Jewish immigrants from the Islamic countries of North Africa and the Middle East.
Jewish society in Israel today is made up of observant and non-observant Jews, comprising a spectrum from the ultra-observant Haredim to those who regard themselves as secular. However, the differences between them are not clear-cut. If religious observance is determined by the degree of adherence to Jewish religious laws and practices, then 20 percent of Israeli Jews fulfill all religious precepts, 60 percent follow some combination of the laws according to personal choices and ethnic traditions, and 20 percent are essentially non-observant. But as Israel was conceived as a Jewish state, the Sabbath (Saturday) and all Jewish festivals and holy days have been instituted as national holidays and are celebrated by the entire Jewish population and observed by all, to a greater or lesser extent.
Other indicators of the degree of religious adherence might be the percentage of parents choosing to give their children a religiously-oriented education or the percentage of voters casting their ballot for religious parties in national elections. The significance of such statistics, however, is uncertain, as non-observant parents may enroll their children in religious schools and many observant citizens vote for non-religious political parties.
Basically, the majority may be characterized as secular Jews who manifest modern lifestyles, with varied degrees of respect for and practice of religious precepts. Within this majority are many who follow a modified traditional way of life, with some choosing to affiliate with one of the liberal religious streams.
Within the observant minority are many who adhere to a religious way of life, regulated by Jewish religious law, while participating in the country’s national life. They regard the modern Jewish state as the first step towards the coming of the Messiah and redemption of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.
In contrast, the Haredim believe that Jewish sovereignty in the Land can be reestablished only after the coming of the Messiah. Maintaining strict adherence to Jewish religious law, they reside in separate neighborhoods, run their own schools, dress in traditional clothing, maintain distinct roles for men and women and are bound by a closely circumscribed lifestyle. Their community consists of two subgroups: a small but volatile element which does not recognize the existence of the state and isolates itself from it; and a pragmatic majority which participates in Israeli politics with the aim of strengthening the Jewish religious character of the state.
As there is no clear separation of religion and state, a central inter-community issue has been the extent to which Israel should manifest its Jewish religious identity. While some in the observant sector seek to augment religious legislation beyond the scope of personal status, over which it has exclusive jurisdiction, the non-observant sector regards this as religious coercion and an infringement on the democratic nature of the state. One of the ongoing issues focuses on the elements required to define a person as a Jew. The observant sector advocates determining a Jew as one born of a Jewish mother, in strict accordance with Jewish law, while secular Jews generally support a definition based on the civil criterion of an individual’s identification with Judaism. These conflicts of interest have given rise to a search for legal means to define the demarcation between religion and state. Until an overall solution is found, authority lies in an unwritten agreement, reached on the eve of Israel’s independence and known as the status quo, which stipulates that no fundamental changes would be made in the status of religion.