By Hannah Rubashkin

On Thursday, February 21, Guy Ben Porat, an Israeli lecturer from Ben-Gurion University, gave a lecture at the Columbia Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies on his latest book Between State and Synagogue: The Secularization of Contemporary Israel. His lecture addressed the main questions of his book. Is secularization occuring in Israel? In what ways is it taking place? Is it connected to a particular political ideology, liberal or otherwise?

He began by making a useful distinction between secularization and secularism: the former consists of changes in peoples’ practice from religious to secular habits while the latter is an ideology that articulates the principles of liberalism as Americans from the U.S. would define it. This distinction created space for him to argue that secularization, but not secularism, was taking root in Israeli society. As examples of this secularizing behavior, he cited increases in marriages outside the Orthodox Rabbinate, shopping on the Sabbath, the selling and eating of non-kosher food, and non-religious burials. Using data from a survey he conducted in 2005, which asked Israelis to self-identify as to their degree of religiosity in faith and in practice, he illustrated how these practices are on the rise among those who identify as ‘traditional’ Jews, as well as those who see themselves as ‘non-religious.’ He attributed these changes not to a leftist swing in Israelis’ political ideology but rather to the effects of globalization and American consumer capitalism on Israeli society. Citing the recent rightward trajectory of the Israeli political establishment, Ben Porat argued that these trends have created space for Israelis to reject the authority of the religious establishment but have not prompted them to liberalize politically.

In rejecting a hypothesis of liberalization in the political sphere, Ben Porat did not offer a more thorough alternative explanation of what connection or affect these trends have on Israeli voting patterns. In his survey of religious practice, he did not ask people how they voted or whether questions of Jewish identity or more secular concerns determined their voting behavior. He noted that since the current government permitted or overlooked these secularizing practices, people were less inclined to take political action based on a desire for official legitimization of secular behavior. But he offered no data to correlate increasing secular behavior with the rise of centrist or right wing political parties. Saying “secularization is not liberalization” does provide an answer to the question of what political ideology the process does facilitate.

Though his argument that secular practices are taking root in Israel is a convincing one, he failed to unpack or place in historical context the terms his survey takers used to describe their Jewish identity and justify their level of practice. Many of his subjects with disparate levels of practice all described themselves using the same word: “traditional.” He explained that this is a difficult word to define, as some of these individuals shopped on the Sabbath or had non-Orthodox marriages while others did not. While this may be the case, he could have addressed how the ways people describe their Jewish identity have changed over the past generation and discussed what signifiers the word “traditional” might have replaced and how that ties in to this notion of secularization of practice. By not placing his terms in a broader historical context and failing to address the issue of identity politics in Israel more broadly, Ben Porat made it harder for the audience to fully grasp how exactly Israeli patterns of self-identification and articulations of religiosity have changed since the beginning of the twenty first century.

Hannah Rubashkin is an assistant at the IRCPL and a Barnard senior majoring in history with a focus on the Middle East. She programs a classical music radio show at WKCR-FM.