Israel a theocracy? It would die

By Geoffrey Alderman, April 25, 2008

Its greatest challenge is to remain both the Jewish state and a liberal democracy

What is the greatest challenge faced by the state of Israel today? I forgive anyone who thinks that the answer must — surely — be Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbours, or even Israel’s interface with the Muslim world. For my money, the greatest challenge Israel faces comes from within. And nothing could better illustrate what I mean than the current furore surrounding the legal right of shops and restaurants to sell chametz products during Pesach. What I mean, in other words, is the ineluctable tension that exists in the Jewish state between the liberty of the individual and the preservation of national identity.

In 1986, the Knesset was persuaded to enact a law criminalising the display-for-sale of chametz — let’s say bread, and bread products. But, as anyone who has spent Pesach in Israel knows, there are plenty of bakeries and restaurants that make and sell such products over this festival. Since none of these establishments is under rabbinical supervision, it follows that they must draw their custom exclusively from non-observant Jews and from Christians and Muslims.

So why was the 1986 law enacted, and why is there such a fuss now? The short answer is that in 1986, the Knesset acknowledged the strength of feeling behind the view, espoused vociferously by its practising Orthodox citizens, that the public display of chametz was an affront to the Jewish values of the Jewish state. At the same time it acknowledged that Israel, as a democracy, must respect the liberty of the individual and refrain from religious intimidation. So there followed a deliberate fudge. Whilst the public display of chametz was forbidden, and whilst local authorities were empowered to enforce this prohibition, bakeries were to remain free to bake bread, and shops and restaurants to sell it, discretely, during Pesach.

But for the sectarian Orthodox, this was not enough. They were determined to unravel this sensible compromise, and if that meant brushing aside the values of a liberal democracy, and compelling the irreligious to become, to however so small a degree, less irreligious, so much the better. In 2003 they found an ally in the newly elected mayor of Jerusalem, Uri Lupolianksi, who has attempted to press criminal charges against sellers of chametz. Two weeks ago, a Jerusalem court threw out these indictments, the judge ruling that the 1986 law applied only to the public display-for-sale of chometz products. And last week Israel’s attorney-general, Menachem Mazuz, made it clear that he has no intention of interfering with this ruling.

He is right not to do so.

On my first visit to Israel, and to Haifa, in 1972, I was curious to know about the “white meat” sold in certain shops in that city. A friend whispered to me that “white meat” was a euphemism for pork. I must confess that it came as a shock to me that pigs could be reared in Israel, and slaughtered for consumption by — well, by anyone who cared to buy and eat pig-meat. In 1956 and 1962, the Knesset acted to restrict the husbandry of pigs, but keeping pigs and manufacturing and selling pork products has never been the subject of a total ban, as is the case in some Islamic theocracies. There are the rights of Israel’s Christian minority to consider. There are the tourists to accommodate. And — especially following the immigration of Soviet Jews with a long tradition of pork consumption — there are the rights of the non-religious.

The sectarian Orthodox — the Abominable No-Men — are typically working themselves into a typical state of temper about this, and the recent legal rulings on the subject of chametz during Pesach are driving them to a new frenzy.

I’m afraid they will get no sympathy from me. Consumption of pork is indeed contrary to orthodoxy. So is eating of bread during Pesach. But wait a minute. So is eating anything during Yom Kippur. The Knesset has never considered criminalising eating during Yom Kippur during this fast, the observance of which is equally (I would have thought) emblematic of Jewish values. What has struck me about Yom Kippur in Israel is that even non-kosher restaurants are closed, and that even the non-Orthodox refrain from driving their cars.

In short, religious coercion has no place in Israel. It’s much better to set an example, and wait for others to respect that example, and even, perhaps, in time, to follow it.

Last updated: 12:06pm, April 24 2008