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ECPR Virtual General Conference 2020

Religionisation as a Legitimating Source for the Israeli Socio-Political System

Contentious Politics
Ethnic Conflict
Raz Saker-Barzilay
Tel Aviv University
Raz Saker-Barzilay
Tel Aviv University

The role of religion in the private, social and political spheres in Israel underwent significant changes during recent decades when religion gained a newfound power to affect the social order. Such developments are visible by the newly established dominance of religious values and belief system in the shaping of legislation, norms, social dynamics and power relations, and thus are becoming a deeply effectual force in redefining Jewish Israeli national identity.
Three characteristics unique to Israel require us to engage in discussions that go beyond the common academic explanations. First, the central and ongoing role of Judaism as a religion, an ethnicity and a nationality in the formulation of the Zionist national project since its inception. Second, more prominently than in other cases, regionalization processes in Israel are characterized by a broad proliferation of religious belief and values into the national identity, led by the political system. Finally, Israel's engagement in an protracted violent national conflict, forces it to grapple constantly with fundamental questions concerning its identity, the righteousness of its actions and its very existence.
In light of these, I suggest that the considerable shift in the position, influence and role religion plays in the public sphere stems from the political system’s attempts to grapple with an acute legitimacy crisis triggered by demographic and geographic shifts taking place since the 1967 war. These shifts produced two crises: a political one, pertaining to the character of the Israeli regime and its ability to reconcile its being Jewish and democratic, and a cultural one, relating to the possibility of defining a collective without relying on the boundaries of citizenship. These crises revealed a gap between the values and characters of the secular nationalist establishment and the reality in which it operated, a mismatch leading to dysfunction and a subsequent plunge of public trust, ultimately triggering a wholescale legitimation crisis. This created the opportunity for the rise of an alternative political elite, which offered a religious and ethnocentric ideology through which it sought to impose a new social order. This order succeeded in reinterpreting the Israeli system's creed consistently with the new conditions by according Judaism a seminal role in the restructuring of national identity, the projection of values and the distribution of resources. In so doing, it restored the trust and solidarity toward the system and solved the legitimation crisis to a certain extent.
In managing the political crisis, religion bolsters the Jewish element by institutionalizing its preference over the democratic ones, while also creating a 'Jewish' interpretation, which emphasizes majority rule over minority rights and judicial review. Religious discourses, which foreground divine rights to the land, also reposition the curtailment of democracy within a politics of no alternative, obscure colonial history and undercut moral dilemmas. In addressing the cultural crisis, religion assists the redefinition of the collective by providing a religious-ethnic classification.
Such a reading of Religionization allows us to examine it as a dynamic process which stems from the objectives of the state and influenced by social and political developments.
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