Creation of the State of Israel
establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the Jewish dimension of the Jewish State
became a pressing, practical matter. From the beginning, there were tensions between those
who advocated a strict division between religion and state, those who believed halachic
Judaism should be the guiding principle of the state and those who sought a middle ground.
Also from the beginning, many of these crucial state-building decisions were made out
of political expediency, with prime ministers from
David Ben Gurion on acceding to the demands of the religious parties in their
ruling coalitions in return for political support on other issues.
Ben Gurion decided to maintain the "status
quo" with regard to religious jurisdiction
Partially out of a desire to formalize the Jewish character of the state and partially
out of political considerations, Prime Minister Ben Gurion decided to maintain the status
quo with regard to religious jurisdiction, meaning that matters of personal status
would continue to be directed by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Jewish marriage, divorce
and other issues continued to be performed according to strict Jewish law. In 1953, an act
of Knesset placed all Jews in Israel under the jurisdiction of the rabbinic court for
issues of personal status including Jews who are not citizens of Israel but who seek to
marry or divorce in Israel. Christian and Muslim religious councils or courts also
continued to determine issues of personal status based on their own religious law.
In later years, Ben Gurion explained his decision:
Any government leader must prescribe for himself priorities, must decide on first
things first...(W)here there was agreement on what was urgent to me, I was prepared to
make concessions on what was urgent to others...When I wanted to introduce national
service conscription, the religious parties said they would of course support it but they
insisted that all army kitchens be kosher. Kosher kitchens to them were of paramount
importance; to me they were of subsidiary interest. It was a price I was prepared to pay
for their full-fledged support on a vital defense measure...In the same way I agreed not
to change the status quo on religious authority for matters of personal status. I know it
was hard on some individuals. But I felt, again in the national interest, that it was wise
to...pay the comparatively small price of religious status quo." (Cited in Howard M.
Sachar, A History of Israel from the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, Alfred A.
Knopf, 1997, reprinted with permission.)
The new state also established a number of principles for the public observance of
Jewish law. On the Jewish sabbath, stores, offices, and public transportation were shut
down. All food served by government institutions, including the military, abided by the
Jewish dietary laws. A Ministry of Religion was established with departments for Jewish,
Christian, Muslim and Druze affairs. The ministry oversaw and subsidized places of
worship. The department for Jewish affairs, which was the largest, was charged with
building synagogues and yeshivas, providing religious services for new immigrants, the
religious courts and supervising dietary laws.
In addition to submitting to the Rabbinic courts for personal status issues, the
secular state expected Israeli Jews to designate themselves as "Jews" for state
bureaucratic purposes, specifically for immigration and identification. According to the
1950 Law of Return, "every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh"
(immigrant) and be granted automatic Israeli citizenship. Potential immigrants, therefore,
had to attest to their Jewishness. The Law of Return did not define "Jew," a
vagueness that would lead to contentious legislation and court rulings. Identity cards for
citizens of the State of Israel were issued by the Ministry of the Interior, with two
categories: "religion" and "nationality." Again, Jewish citizens of
Israel were expected to attest to their Jewishness, and list "Jew" as both their
religion and nationality. And again, the definition of a "Jew" by religion and
nationality would be further defined by legislation and the courts.