Faith and Politics in Israel
Dr. Carsten Schliwski / Protestant Theology
Photo: Lennart Mehrwald

Religion is a big part of identity, even for non-religious Israelis

The Judaist and Islamic scholar Dr. Carsten Schliwski on faith and politics in Israel

"In Israel, most people just want to live in peace," Dr. Carsten Schliwski says, lecturer in the history of religion at the University of Wuppertal.
But living a calm life seems to be impossible in the State of Israel, founded in 1948. And there are a lot of historical reasons for this that have nothing to do with faith at all. Schliwski studied Jewish Studies, Islamic Studies and History in Cologne and Jerusalem and tells us: "The Israelis were very dissatisfied with the condition of their state when I was in Israel for the first time 25 years ago. This was to case since it had simply not been possible to get any form of peace. No Israeli can ever get used to the frequent assassinations that keep shaking the country." This longing for peace is palpable, the only question is on what terms. Whether through a compromise between the parties involved or through coercion from outside.

The foundation of the state in 1948

The planning that ultimately led to the founding of the state in 1948 began with the first Zionist congress in 1897 and toke only fifty years. One must bear in mind, the scientist explains, that this was not a decolonisation. but a project that attempted to bring the Jews back to the Holy Land. "The political framework conditions were different than when you release an autochthonous population into independence. As this was the case with the decolonisation of Africa, for example." As a prerequisite for this was, that Jews had to see themselves not only as a religious or legal community, but as a nation. The formation of other nation states such as Belgium, Greece or Italy in the 19th century thus served as a pioneering model. Through this, a nation-state consciousness could be developed for the first time.

The Balfour Declaration

The decisive basis for the establishment of the State of Israel was the so-called Balfour Declaration. This declaration originally intended to achieve something quite different. In it, Great Britain agreed to establish a "national home" for the Jewish people in Palestine on November 2, 1917. Earl Arthur James Belfour, after whom this declaration is named, tried to persuade the USA to enter the First World War. In his opinion, at that time, the Jews controlled the American press, so the declaration meant political calculation for him. He was also known as an anti-Semite. "The British actually took a three-pronged approach," Schliwski adds. "Besides the assurance of support from the Jews, there was also an agreement with the Hashemites to establish a great Arab empire, and there were efforts to divide the Middle East between France and Britain." Belfour's main aim was to win allies, "but that was also part of what caused the conflict later, because the different promises could not be kept."
The declaration became the de facto prerequisite for the establishment of the State of Israel although it only sought to establish a homeland for the Jewish people. The United Nations recognised Isreali partition plan in 1947.

Pious does not necessarily mean peaceful

Israel is 75 % Jewish, a pious population, as is generally assumed, but is that really the case? "I have quite a hard time with the term pious people," the 50-year-old says. "Most Jews are not Orthodox and not pious either. At least no more than most Christians, most Muslims, etc." The idea of a peaceful, quiet life exists, he says, and "pious" does not necessarily mean peaceful. On the contrary, it can also mean aggressive or selfish in the sense that one puts one's own right above that of others because one has the corresponding faith, he elaborates. "The reason why there has been war for decades, actually even before the founding of the State of Israel, is ultimately because it has not yet been possible to reach an agreement that sufficiently benefits both sides to keep peace." That is why no peace agreement is to be expected in the foreseeable future.

Religion is part of the identity

According to a 2015 study, 65 % of Israelis declared themselves non-religious or atheist. Religion nevertheless plays a major role, explains Schliwski. "It is a big part of the identity of non-religious Israelis as well. It is perceived as a cultural identity, i.e. you are Jewish because you feel connected to the Jewish tradition." This does not necessarily mean keeping Torah, or believing in God, but living a certain way of life. And that way of life being determined by the traditions of Judaism.
"Religiosity plays a big role, we know that from other countries as well. The influence of the religious is increasing and with it their demands."The religious influence in politics is certainly problematic, which can be seen, for example, in matters of personal status such as marriages, which still fall under religious law. "This applies not only to the Jewish authorities, but also to the Islamic and Christian authorities." Due to the fact that religious parties have always been involved in governments, no reform of this personal status law ever came about. The new government under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is the first to govern without a religious party. And theoretically a change in this law is now possible. It therefore remains to be seen whether the former education minister will continue to take the objections of the religious parties into account, although Bennett's personal religiosity makes it likely that religious privileges will be retained.

Israel is clearly divided into two camps

Israel has the reputation of being the only democracy in the Middle East. Government relations are difficult, Netanyahu has lost a lot of trust. Could Israel even develop into a halacha state (the halacha is the legal part of Judaism's tradition and includes 613 commandments about customs, traditions and general legal principles as well as other rules developed from them, editor's note)? "I do not think so," Schliwski emphasises. "As far as the state is concerned, it iscurrently less the religious component that is playing a role in Israel, but rather the deadlock between right-wing and left-wing political parties. Israel is clearly divided into two camps."Already in Netanyahu's statements was the antagonism evident. He described everything that did not suit his government as left-wing, although he himself did not necessarily adhere to his right-wing party programme. "For example, in the debate on military service, he, who himself had an army career, simply overrode the objection of religious parties and also obliged religious Jews to serve in the armed forces. In doing so, he invoked a clear conflict."

The hope for peace

When being asked, whether the political situation would ever allow peace in Israel , the Judaist and Islamic scholar first has to groan thoughtfully and then says: "At the moment, I wonder how long the current coalition will last. In terms of foreign policy, the coalition has very different approaches to the Arab states and the Palestinian question. From the Israeli side, I do not see a unified line for peace negotiations." But one has to talk about the Palestinians as well. They themselves are divided into two. "You have the Gaza Strip, which is dominated by Hamas. There will be no peace agreement with them, since they need the state of war with Israel for their own legitimacy. And we have the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation), which still rules the West Bank and has not really moved towards peace negotiations in the last 10 to 15 years. They have been more concerned with keeping their own population quiet, since there is also a danger of Hamas taking over in the West Bank. They have blocked all ideas from Israel again and again." He does not see any readiness for a real peace agreement at the moment. But under Rabin, talks were held that no one had considerd as possible. In this respect, the situation can change quickly all the time.

Every displacement is an injustice

According to Schliwski, the apparent impossibility of different faith groups living together in peace, partly also goes back to the fact that there are faith groups that have an absolutist claim. "Everyone is painstakingly trying to preserve their own territory and the idea of compromise is not really being well received. But, this conflict is not only about faith. It is also about political and economic interests." Therefore, the scholar asks the following question: "Would the Palestinian side really religiously care that the state of Israel continues to exist, if they were economically better off, if they had enough jobs, enough prosperity?" The religious arguments would then fade into the background. Many arguments are based on religion, but in many cases they depend on the circumstances of life. The problem of the Palestinian refugees, for example, is passed on from generation to generation, even with the support of the United Nations. Refugee camps have become cities in which fourth-generation refugees live.These people would never have seen Haifa or Jaffa. "Of course, this triggers conflicts, because every displacement is injustice," Schliwski notes. "At the same time, there are always proposals. One possibility for a peace agreement would be to offset the expellees against each other. Not only have about 800,000 Palestinians been expelled from their cities, but about as many Jews have been expelled from the Arab countries as well. Instead of now demanding compensation and a right of return from Israel, the idea is that the Palestinians should receive compensation from the Arab states that expelled the Jews. Israel gets no compensation, because they have integrated the people. That would have already defused a large part of the conflict."
"When I look at the young generation in Israel," he sums up, "they are interested in earning their money and otherwise living, partying and doing everything that is done here. They do not subordinate everything to religion."

Uwe Blass (Interview on July 14, 2021)

Dr. Carsten Schliwski studied Jewish Studies, Islamic Studies and History in Cologne and Jerusalem. Since 2006, he has been a lecturer in the History of Religion in the Faculty of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of Wuppertal.


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