Sebastian Engelbrecht opened the discussion by saying that in Israel, religion is at the heart of a culture war that has divided the country. Engelbrecht, former Israel correspondent for Deutschlandradio, moderated the podium discussion, in which Rainer Kampling was joined by Israeli rabbi Tuvia Ben-Chorin of the Jewish Community of Berlin, education scholar Micha Brumlik of the Zentrum Jüdische Studien Berlin-Brandenburg (ZJS – Center for Jewish Studies), and Lutheran theologian and German Protestant Kirchentag secretary general Ellen Ueberschär.
Bertelsmann Study: Ultra-Orthodox a Rising Percentage of the Younger Generation
About half of the Jewish population is not religious, Engelbrecht explains, while just under one-quarter live traditionally – meaning according to Jewish customs and traditions, but amid society at large – and ten percent are ultra-Orthodox. The secular center is “loud and clear” in its demands for an ideologically neutral state, while strictly observant Jews insist on modest clothing for women and separation of the sexes on buses. Modern Religious Zionists demand that Israel be designated as the nation-state of the Jewish people, with fewer rights for people of other ethnicities and religions. In that case, important functions within society would be restricted to Jews, for example. Engelbrecht pointed to a recent study by Bertelsmann Stiftung that found that the percentage of religious, ultra-Orthodox, and politically right-leaning people is higher in the younger generation than across the population as a whole – and it is continuing to grow. By the next generation, as much as half of the Jewish population could be ultra-Orthodox, Engelbrecht said.
Lack of Separation between Church and State
When religiously conservative groups come to power in any country, it leads to “issues with human rights,” said Rainer Kampling. At present, there are no ultra-Orthodox groups involved in government in Israel, but there are religious nationalist ones. Kampling said that for decades, Israel’s Orthodox community was criticized for not being sufficiently involved in society. “Now they are getting involved, and that’s seen as a problem, too.”
To this day, 67 years after the country was founded, Israel still does not have a final constitution. That means there are no specific laws regulating the relationship between church and state. Marriages and divorces, for example, are handled by the different religious communities. The Orthodox Chief Rabbinate holds this privilege for the Jewish population.
“We live in an ‘overpromised land’”
In Micha Brumlik’s view, Israel needs to finally give itself a secular constitution, since this is the only thing that would allow a truly democratic state to exist. Liberal Reform Rabbi Ben-Chorin countered that Israel needs more time. He fears that given the current political situation, a constitution could firmly establish Israel as a Jewish nation-state, and one that would wish to gain security by controlling the Palestinians instead of tackling the problems between the religions within society. “We live in an ‘overpromised land,’” said Ben-Chorin, pointing out that Israel is overburdened with promises and expectations. He also said that the country needs to work on this much more extensively.
The participants agreed, however, that the main critical factor in terms of relations between Israel and Germany is not religion, but rather the German stance toward Israel’s settlement and security policy.
If Israel were to annex large parts of the West Bank, as religious Zionist minister Naftali Bennett has called for, it would be “an act in breach of international law,” said Brumlik. Germany would be unable to accept such an action, and it would trigger a diplomatic crisis.
A Plea in Favor of Churches: “Stabilizing for Society”
According to the Bertelsmann study, Germans and Israelis have a fundamentally positive view of each other’s countries. And yet, the authors also found that younger and conservative Israelis take a more critical stance toward Germany. At the same time, the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict was found to have been detrimental to German public opinion of Israel. In addition, more and more Germans, especially younger ones, wish to put the Holocaust behind them, no longer seeing themselves as having any particular responsibility toward Israel.
While Brumlik interpreted the debate surrounding achieving closure for the Holocaust as a national issue involving German identity, Ueberschär stressed that the loss of Christian knowledge goes hand in hand with the loss of knowledge regarding Christianity’s Jewish roots. Churches, she said, perform a “stabilizing function in society.” They are places where people can talk about their fears. Ueberschär said that in East Germany, where secularization was forced during the Communist regime, “fears are expressed on the street instead,” as the Pegida movement has shown. Theology professor Kampling added that religious institutions make it possible to “engage in a practice of remembrance.”
The theologian takes a dim view of letting go of the Holocaust and the debate surrounding fault. After all, he says, “no small number of Germans profited from the Shoah” as a result of expropriation of Jewish property by the Nazis. Kampling views “the mass enrichment of non-Jewish Germans based on the property of their Jewish neighbors” as a “transfer of blame by transferring property titles.” He says the calls to achieve closure are therefore not only rooted in Germany’s growing secularization, but also an expression of “human greed.”
Learning from Past Suffering
Ben-Chorin called for a culture of remembrance that learns from past suffering and creates positive memories of shared history. He said this was especially possible in Berlin – “city of suffering, city of marvels” – where, on the one hand, the annihilation of the Jewish people was planned and organized at the Wannsee Conference, in January 1942, but also where, on the other hand, youth exchange programs between Israelis and Germans have existed since the 1950s. These positive memories also include a strategic partnership between Freie Universität Berlin and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, whose ties go back to the 1950s.
This text was originally published in German in campus.leben on February 24, 2015.