KFAR NAHUM — Here in Israel, nobody talks about the “separation of church and state.” The national flag is decorated with the Star of David. The national emblem is a menorah. This is a Jewish state, which can be discombobulating to even a religious American.
Israel’s Nov. 1 election caused consternation among secular Israelis and progressive Reform Jews. At a Shabbos dinner in Jerusalem and at a local park in Tel Aviv, strangers expressed their anxiety about the gains made by the religious parties.
The Religious Zionist Party jumped from six seats to 14 seats in the Knesset, while Shas (a party founded by an Orthodox Sephardic chief rabbi) gained two seats for a total of 11. That means nearly half of Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition consists of the most religious parties.
“Will Israel Become a Theocracy?” asked one fearful headline in the left-leaning Haaretz.
“Theocracy” cries are heard every day in the U.S. media, of course. You hear the word if a Supreme Court nominee’s personal life smells of Catholic dogma.
In Israel, though, the religious political parties are explicit. Shas continues to use Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in its television ads and billboards, including a massive billboard that hangs over the entrance to the Western Wall.
“They vote for Netanyahu, and he gives them whatever they want,” was one Reform Jew’s explanation.
It’s not just the progressives and the leftists who lament the alliance. Tzipi, a retiree from the tech sector enjoying lunch in Tel Aviv, voted for Netanyahu and relishes his win in part as a rebuke to the Left. “Here in Tel Aviv, they are so sad,” she smiles before mocking their conceits: “‘Oh, we’re soooo progressive!’”
Tzipi is no right-winger. She has a lesbian daughter, says that “religion causes all the trouble in the world,” and bristles a bit when I refer to her as “an Israeli grandma.” But she thinks the cultural Left in places like Tel Aviv is going too far.
The headline issue (not because it’s the most important, but because it is the most tangible policy that is acutely in play) is public transit. Will the buses and trains run on the Sabbath?
Currently they don’t, to the displeasure of Tzipi and non-Jews who might want a bus ride home on Friday night or catch the train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on a Saturday morning.
These are not even equivalent to the blue laws that used to be prevalent in the United States. For example, it’s perfectly legal in Israel to operate your restaurant on the Sabbath. I ordered a shrimp burger in Tel Aviv Sunday night. So why does religious influence in the government carry so much political weight?
What’s under the surface (barely, because Israelis in general do not leave too many opinions unspoken) is what the secular and Reform Jews see as the privileged status of the segment of Orthodox Jews known as Haredim.
Many Haredi men make a career of studying the Torah, and their large families are supported heavily by Israel’s welfare state. “They have too many kids,” Omer, a middle-aged father of two in Tel Aviv, tells me. How much should the government in a Jewish state privilege religion over non-religion or family over other concerns?
There are a thousand layers of complexity here, and any American trying to explain Israeli politics is prone to misunderstand the dynamics by viewing things through an American lens. But the themes here are relevant to current debates in American politics about the interplay between religion and the state.
American politicians and commentators have long professed principles of religious neutrality. Outside of abortion, which is the taking of an innocent life, America’s religious conservatives have in recent decades agreed that the government should not legislate morality, but that we ought to respect religious liberty: Just let us live our lives according to our own consciences. Nobody is trying to take away your contraception, your sex changes, or your pornography — just don’t force it on our children, and don’t try to make us bake your cake.
Even if conservatives don’t like gay marriage or Drag Queen Story Hour, these are the rules of the game. It’s called “small-l liberalism.”
But increasingly, this is a live debate again on the Right. Many American conservative Christians, particularly young Catholic conservatives, doubt that we should play by these rules anymore.
We know that pornography is evil and harmful, and so why shouldn’t we outlaw it? We perceive that the culture makes it harder to observe Sunday as a day of rest, and so why not pass blue laws that restrict commerce on this day?
We believe that Christ’s teachings are true, and we understand God’s laws not as arbitrary diktat, but as a road map to happiness, reflective of human nature. So why shouldn’t we pass the moral law into civil law?
What’s more, when we play by the rules of liberalism, we are the only ones doing so.
Prayer was removed from public schools on the premise that government-run public places were secular — and that premise proved to be a lie. In our cities and wealthy liberal suburban counties, the intolerant and dogmatic public schools are now anything but secular or pluralistic. They are relentlessly proselytizing wokeness and radical gender theory, deliberately trying to convert children away from their parents’ beliefs.
So why shouldn’t we take a lesson from some of Netanyahu’s incoming coalition partners and seek to govern as religious conservatives, subsidizing traditional ways of life, abandoning the idea of neutrality, and outlawing what is bad?
To some extent, we should. State and federal governments ought to encourage family formation rather than pretending that having children is a consumption decision like buying a motorcycle or adopting Labradoodles.
But for Christians, there’s a clear limit on how much we ought to play hardball and how much we should use politics to advance our moral framework. And those limits are not a creation of Jefferson, Hobbes, or Locke but were implicit in the teachings of Jesus himself, right here on the banks of the Sea of Galilee.
The Sermon on the Mount was no feel-good pep-talk. Jesus articulated a stricter moral code than what even the Jews were used to, equating lust to adultery and banning divorce.
But there was a whiff in the sermon of what one could call “liberalism.” More accurately, Christ, while not being ambivalent about right and wrong, made it clear that not every injustice can be corrected in this lifetime and that not every means can be deployed in pursuit of the right outcome.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor
and hate your enemy,’” Jesus told his followers here in Kfar Nahum, sometimes written as Capernaum. “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
He said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Of course, this doesn’t mean we should support the persecution of Christians — quite the opposite, we need to “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” as Christ said.
Rejecting “an eye for an eye,” Christ instructed us that “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
If we take Christ’s teachings seriously here on the Mount of the Beatitudes, we see that we are obligated to fight vice, immorality, and sin, but we also see that we can’t expect to be rewarded for it in this lifetime. Instead, we should expect persecution, slings, and arrows.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me,” Jesus said. “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.”