Thursday, January 13, 2011

U.S. “Church and State”: a False Model for Separation of Religion and Politics in Israel (by Jeremy Serwer)

On December 22, 2010, an incredible Op-Ed from the Israeli newspaper “Ha’aretz” talked about the very important need to separate religion from politics in Eretz Yisrael. The letter was then published by the URJ here, in Ten Minutes of Torah.

The writer was a self proclaimed “ultra Orthodox” man, and claimed that Israel’s system should be based on the Constitutional model of church/state separation in the United States.

While the latter phrase is a false statement on its face (there is no Constitutional separation of church and state in the U.S., though there is case law on the subject), one could not propose a greater disconnect. Israel has very little to do with the U.S. on this matter: separating religion from politics in a country whose very existence IS a religious state, compares poorly to our Constitutional requirement that the STATE (e.g., our Federal government) may not countenance one particular religion (and, secondarily, there’s no implicit separation of church and state in that).

Further, that this has come to mean a Constitutional requirement of church/state separation is false, of course, as the Constitution says nothing of the sort: otherwise, why would all the court cases from 1948 (and NOT UNTIL 1948) by which case law established a supposed legal doctrine of church/state separation, have been necessary in the first place?

But I digress, sort of . . .

The U.S. Constitutional requirement (that the government may not establish a state religion) contradicts blatantly with the concept of a democratic but Jewish state, and thus cannot be claimed as a proper model for Israel. Further, however church/state separation has evolved in the U.S., clearly the intent of the Zionists – however secular their personal behavior – was that Palestine would give birth to a Jewish nation: hardly a parallel concept to church/state separation.

When you add that our Constitution falls short of actually mandating a clear separation between church and state, there fails to exist even a contradictory model upon which Israelis can depend. Given the myriad references to the Creator, God, etc., and the strong religious beliefs of our Founders, they clearly felt the existence of the Almighty in everything they envisioned and accomplished.

That they wanted to prevent any singular religion being mandated by the government was more a function of their views of democracy and religious freedom – the history of our early immigrants fleeing religious persecution being quite extant in their thought – than any interest in actually separating church and state dealings, symbols, activities, etc.

It wasn’t until 1802, in a parenthetical comment buried in a thank-you note sent to the Baptists of Danbury, CT that Thomas Jefferson first coined the phrase “separation of church and state”. It wasn’t until 1948 that this concept arose again to any significant level, when a case involving a Catholic school receiving government funds resulted in a dissenting opinion by Justice Hugo Black in which he re-affirmed Jefferson’s reference as an interpretation of law. Clearly, this could not stand on its own, so a plethora of cases since that time – primarily brought by the likes of the ACLU, etc. – have resulted, at best, in case law supposedly preventing any melding of church/state symbols, activities, etc., down to the most ridiculous and politically correct degree.

This is certainly not an effective model for Israelis to rid themselves of their problems with the mix of politics and religion. Common sense debate, a real sense of kavod, and improved exercise of ‘loving thy neighbor as thyself’ would take them a whole lot further!

That the URJ/TMT would then disseminate this Op-Ed on such a false and ineffective model is disingenuous at best: one can only guess the intent was to reinforce the separation model in the Reform Jewish community. Seems a bit propagandist to me . . .

[I must say, however, when I complained to the URJ and RAC, Rabbi Saperstein asked to post my thoughts above on the RAC and URJ blogs – finally, a published counter-point!]


  1. Benjamin Franklin:

    "When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ‘tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one."

    "If we look back into history for the character of the present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution. The primitive Christians thought persecution extremely wrong in the pagans, but practiced it on one another. The first Protestants of the Church of England blamed persecution in the Romish Church, but practiced it upon the Puritans. These found it wrong in the bishops, but fell into the same practice themselves both here [in England] and in New England."

  2. George Carlin:

    "I'm completely in favor of the separation of Church and State. My idea is that these two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death."

  3. C.B. MacPherson:

    "Moralists and theologians have been saying for a long time that we have got our values all wrong, in putting acquisition ahead of spiritual values. This has not cut much ice in the last three or four centuries because it was inconsistent with the search for individual and national power to which market societies have been committed. But if I am right in saying that national power from now on is going to depend on moral advantage, on moral stature, then the claims of morality and power will coincide. The way to national power will be the recognition and promotion of equal human rights. And the pursuit of these ends will bring an enlargement of individual power as well, not the powers of individuals over others or at the expense of others, but their powers to realize and enjoy their fullest human capacities."