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"How Jewish is the Jewish State? Religion and Society in Israel"

All-Day Conference, Tuesday, October 28, in SIS Founders Room

Religion and Society

Israel was established in 1948 as a Jewish state, a fact that is not only stated in its Declaration of Independence, but one that has also been confirmed by every single government since its founding.

According to the former President of the Israeli Supreme Court, Justice Aharon Barak, "A Jewish state is a state whose history is bound up with the history of the Jewish people, whose principal language is Hebrew, and whose main holidays reflect its national mission." Yet, Barak insists that "the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish State cannot be identified with Jewish Law." Many Orthodox Israelis disagree. What is the meaning of a Jewish state and what place do Judaism and other religions play in such a state? Is there separation of state and religion in Israel?

To explore these questions and more, on Tuesday, October 28, American University's Center for Israel Studies (CIS) and Jewish Studies Program will host an all-day academic conference "How Jewish is the Jewish State? Religion and Society in Israel."

Religion and Society in Israel

With panelists invited from Israel, Europe, and the United States, the conference explores the separation of state and religion in Israel, and looks at the treatment and the internal structure of Israel's other religious and ethnic groups, as well as the question of religious pluralism in the Jewish state.

The conference culminates with an evening keynote address by the distinguished philosopher and scholar Moshe Halbertal, the John and Golda Cohen Professor of Jewish Philosophy at Jerusalem's Hebrew University and New York University's Gruss Professor of Law. Professor Halbertal will speak on "Israel: At the Crossroads of Democracy, Nationalism, and Religion." Professor Halbertal "is one of the leading public intellectuals of Israel and one of the key scholars when it comes to defining the place of religion in public life," says Michael Brenner, director of AU's Center for Israel Studies.

Legal Treatment of Religion

History Department Chair Pamela Nadell will moderate the conference's opening session. Panelists will address "New Frontiers in the Struggle between Religion and State," "Religion and State: Law in the Books versus Law in Action," and "Orthodox Monopolies: A Trojan Horse?"

Nadell reflects: "Since 1947, when David Ben Gurion, the founding prime minister of Israel, ceded to the Orthodox that Shabbat would be the nation's day of rest and that rabbinical courts would retain jurisdiction over Jewish marriage and divorce, there has been an ongoing struggle between religion and the state. Our panelists consider the ramifications of this policy on the contemporary scene." The panel includes Haifa University Law Professor Eli Salzberger, the founder of the Center for Crime, Law and Society and a former dean of Haifa University's School of Law; Yedidia Stern, the vice-president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a law professor at Bar Ilan University; and Kimmy Caplan, one of the world's leading specialists on Orthodox Judaism.

Non-Jews in Israel

Sociologist Calvin Goldscheider, scholar in residence at the Center for Israel Studies, chairs the afternoon panel on non-Jews in Israel. Speakers include Hebrew University Professor Ahmad Natour ("Islam and Muslims in the State of the Jews") and Amal el-Sana Alh'jooj, an award-winning Bedouin woman scholar and activist, who has advanced the cause of Shared Society between Jews and Arabs as well as promoting community development amongst Bedouin women. Professor Natour served as a kadi (judge) from1985-2013 and then President of Israel's Sharia Court of Appeals (1994-2013). In this capacity he made a significant contribution to the development of Sharia law in Israel and to its liberalization, especially in relation to the protection of the rights of women.

Jewish Pluralism

This last panel examines the viability of the extremely broad spectrum of religious attitudes among Israeli Jews, ranging from the ultra-Orthodox and the settler movement to the Reform movement and secular Jewish identities. What are their attitudes towards Israeli statehood and towards the separation of state and religion?

Panelists include AU Professor Gershon Greenberg, an expert on the Israeli ultra-Orthodox (haredim); the leading historian of Reform Judaism, Michael A. Meyer; Oxford University's Sara Hirschhorn, an expert on the settler movement; and one of the most powerful voices in the Israeli discourse on Jewish culture, religion, and secular identity, historian and writer Fania Oz-Salzberger.


The conference is supported by the Knapp Family Foundation.