In search of the secular

Yishai Blank*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


INTRODUCTION This chapter is an attempt to locate and defend “the secular” in present-day Israeli legal doctrines, institutions, and discourse of religious liberty. While some degree of state non-religiosity has been a fairly consensual political and legal value, secularism has never been recognized as more than a personal attribute of individuals or a coincidental trait of Israeli society as a whole. In addition to the partial guarantee of separation between the state and its official (Jewish) religion, secular persons have been protected by a set of individual rights and freedoms. Secular sentiments, secular communities, and secular ways of living, however, have never been legally recognized or protected. In addition, the management of various aspects of religious freedom and of religious affairs has been, to a significant extent, delegated to local authorities. This legal structure has arguably served as sufficient barrier against religious oppression and coercion – or at least it did when seculars formed the majority of the population, or while they still enjoyed hegemonic political and legal status. However, as the balance of power in the legislature, administration, and judiciary shifts from seculars to religious Jews, and as Orthodox Jewish religion gains prominence in the public sphere and state policies, this legal structure needs to be reevaluated and possibly reconsidered. Freedom of conscience and other individual rights may no longer adequately protect seculars and members of minority religions and non-Orthodox Jewish denominations. Seculars can be considered a national majority only if we include among them people who identify as “traditionalists” (masorti), and in certain localities seculars are already a minority. Unlike members of institutionalized religions, seculars in Israel do not form a coherent group with a more-or-less clear set of beliefs, practices, and ways of life. Nevertheless, inasmuch as secularist communities signify the aspiration to create a plurality of experimental public spaces where liberal and counter-hegemonic values are protected (albeit in different ways), they themselves deserve to be protected against the growing enmeshing of state, dominant religions, and nationality. Thus, I argue that secularism in Israel should be understood as an effort by various nonreligious minorities to confront and oppose the dominant and empowered state religion. As such, these communities should be given protection.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationInstitutionalizing Rights and Religion
Subtitle of host publicationCompeting Supremacies
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781316599969
ISBN (Print)9781107153714
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2017


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