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Religion and State in Israel : An Interview with Moshe Feiglin on Israel Army Radio

Your stand is a bit complex and very interesting. You say that Health Minister Litzman, (editor: who resigned from the government on Friday due to desecration of the Shabbat by state-funded train construction) is completely right. On the other hand, you say that on questions of Shabbat observance of privately owned supermarkets and on public transportation, every community should decide for itself. Please explain the dissonance between Litzman’s stand and your own.

There is dissonance between Israel’s identity as a Jewish state and the need to preserve the almost absolute liberty of the citizens. Liberty is also a Jewish idea. The State of Israel has to express its Jewishness in everything associated with its official institutions and its state structures - like the train, which, perhaps should not be, but is currently part of the government structure. On the other hand, issues like where there will be open supermarkets on Shabbat should not be decided by the Knesset – the central government – but rather inside the community, in the neighborhood.

Isn’t that what we have now with the status quo? (editor: The arrangement established upon Israel’s founding whereby religious observance in Israel’s public domain would remain as it was then.) There are municipal by-laws and supermarkets in certain communities are open and nevertheless there is some sort of general Jewish, religious character. That is very close to what is happening now.

From a certain standpoint, it is going in the same direction, but in other ways, not at all and it may even go in the opposite direction. For example: The local community is the body that will decide if the gay parade will march through its territory or not. It goes in both directions: Not only deciding whether to open or not, but how its character and nature will be in general.

Let us go into detail. An elderly couple who lives in Haifa. They want to travel to their children in Rishon on Shabbat. They do not have a car. They need public transportation on Shabbat. Will they have it?

If you ask me, Zehut is opposed to public transportation on weekdays, as well. The State does not have to transport people. The State has to make it possible for private companies to do it efficiently and inexpensively. And if the State would do so, that couple would have many more inexpensive options, as opposed to today. All of that would be without State intervention. That is actually the great lie. But we are not here to talk about details like transportation, but rather about Israel’s Jewish character. Let us focus on that.

Let us talk about Israel’s Jewish character. The question is why to breach something that has functioned well for decades, since the founding of the State, and to come and say that it is not the role of the Knesset. The status quo has worked not badly at all until now.

I remember clashes over the Shabbat since my childhood and I am already 55. To say that it functioned not badly is really far from accurate. Clashes over religion and identity take place here all the time. These clashes form the basis for polarization and never-ending conflict. As soon as we remove the State from this game and leave the question of the identity of the area in the hands of the community instead of in the hands of the State, two things will happen. First, we will have one less thing to fight over. Second – and perhaps this will surprise you – Israel’s Jewish identity will become stronger because a large majority of the citizens of Israel are interested in fortifying our Jewish identity.

How do you preserve the State’s Jewish identity if you uproot the Shabbat, which is something so essential to Judaism?

I hope you do not suspect me of trivializing the Shabbat.

I do not suspect you, I just want to challenge you in this discussion, that is all.

I will tell you why I think that Litzman, in this discussion, is absolutely right. Because the State – as opposed to the individual – does have to be committed to the Torah of Israel and to the culture of Israel, which primarily stems from the Torah of Israel. As we know, it is fine to close the major Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway in the middle of the week just because the US or French president has arrived – even if he doesn’t actually use the highway, but is just on his way from the airport to Jerusalem and flying over the highway. Nobody asks how it is that in the middle of the week you closed a major traffic artery because the king of the Americans or the king of the French arrived. By the same token, we as a state must honor our culture and identity and know that a government company – a company that belongs to the government and not to individuals – does not work on Shabbat. Actually, the entire debate is over how much weight we give to the identity of the State, or to our State as a Jewish State.

Moshe Feiglin, let us talk about the core issues like weddings, conversions. According to your model, are they community issues? Government?

My grandparents of blessed memory were wed before the State was established and they managed to get married despite the fact that the State did not wed them. If they had needed to, which they didn’t – to divorce, they could have also done that without the State. The State should not wed people or divorce them. The State has to register them and it should even desist from that. It is important to understand, for all those who immediately begin to shout, “How will we be a Jewish State?” We have grown accustomed to relying on central government or the State as the body that must foster the character of our state or society. We are constantly fighting over this.

That is the whole idea of democracy. You elect your representatives and they are those who fashion the public space, including on issues like how the Shabbat will look.

The role of the State is to defend you. It is not the role of the State to wed and divorce you, not to transport you and not many other things that politicians say.

That is a different issue. I am asking about the character of the Shabbat. These are our elected officials on both the local and national level.

Let’s give an example that people will understand. When they asked the residents of Northern Tel Aviv if they are interested in their local shopping mall being open on Shabbat, the majority of the elitist, secular residents answered that they prefer for it to be closed. Because this issue has become an issue over which we fight in the Knesset and not in the neighborhood, suddenly they talk about religious coercion and divisions and everybody joins in - and everybody benefits politically from the fight. What we want is for these issues to be determined in the community.

What is the role of the Chief Rabbinate in your model? What authority will it have?

The only authority that it will retain will be conversions, because we are a Jewish State and in order to know who can become a citizen and who cannot, the State needs to be able to turn to a government body. Thus, this authority cannot be taken from the Chief Rabbinate. The rest of the authority of the Rabbinate will be in determining a standard. For example, the Rabbinate will have to determine what food is kosher and what is not. It will not supervise kosher status, but an establishment that claims that it is kosher, will say, “Kosher according to the Rabbinate standard”. This enables us to leave the dialogue in the hands of the citizens, to determine their identity, to stop fighting. The interest today in preserving our identity is much, much broader than we think.

When politicians try to take the credit and turn the issue into a boxing ring, the entire issue gets stuck.

This is actually a model of ideological capitalism, is it not? The majority will determine the character.

We want liberty. We want a dialectic between different communities. In all, an amazing process is occurring here, of a nation returning to its Land with all kinds of ideas, ideologies and identities. A dialogue can develop here. Everybody wants it. Let’s allow it to happen.

Moshe Feiglin, it was very, very interesting. Thank you very much.

Picture: By Oyoyoy - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19440280

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