Freedom from Religion

This is a guest post by Gabriel

In 1985, the Canadian Supreme court ruled that The Lord’s Day Act, the law that forbade stores from opening on Sunday, was enforcing a Christian belief and therefore violating the rights of all Canadians. The Lord’s Day act, thanks to the 1982 introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, was struck down.  In England, it was not until 1994 that department store Sunday shopping was allowed although in practice it was being done earlier.  The Sunday shopping hours in these countries, as well as in the US, are restricted, but stores are still permitted to remain open most of the day. In all of these countries, public transportation runs on Sundays.  Liberal, Western democracies are moving in this direction.

In Israel, it is impossible to not have your life impacted by the religious beliefs of others.  In the city I live in, Ra’anana, not a particularly religious city, every shop in the city is closed on Saturday. If you are out of food, need an emergency pack of cigarettes, or even just want to go out to eat, there is nothing. Even the kiosks are shut. Yes, you can take a taxi to Herzliya  or even walk to the overpriced grocery store half an hour away just outside the borders of Ra’anana, but this is not the point. The problem is that in Israel, I do not have the freedom to live my life free of religious influence.  In Canada as in every country, there are still remnants of religiosity.  Christmas and Easter are public holidays and the Saturday/Sunday weekend is constructed around a Christian schedule. However, these are all vestiges of a religious society rather than an active attempt by religion to enforce itself on the populace.

The example of Shabbat shopping in Israel is a relatively tame one. The truth is that religion imposes itself on the life of every Israeli. Everyone who marries in Israel must marry through the rabbinate which means, among other things, the woman having to take purity classes.  As well, because there is no secular marriage in Israel, only people of the same religion are allowed to marry. Many Israelis, even couples who are both Jewish, get married in Cyprus to avoid the hassle of dealing with the rabbinate. Even more humiliating is that a widow who is childless must receive halitzah from her brother-in-law in order to be considered free to marry. This means, that in the 21st century, two secular Israeli people must act out a medieval religious ceremony involving removing shoes and spitting in order for the woman to even be eligible to marry again.

In Toronto, I can do what I want virtually whenever I want.  One’s life is generally unaffected by the religious. Religious people can live their lives as they wish and the secular can do the same. Canada, like Britain, and many Western countries, is not a Christian country. It is a secular country with a Christian heritage.  I wish for something similar for Israel: A country with a Jewish heritage where religious life does not impose itself on everyone. When you ask someone what freedom of religion is, the usual answer will be “the freedom to practice religion”. This is only a partial answer. What people sometimes forget is that the freedom to actively not practice religion is equally important as the freedom to practice it. Israel, unfortunately, allows for freedom to practice religion, but restricts the ability to not practice it. On Saturday, public transportation ceases entirely, shops shut in most cities, and much of the country comes to a forced stand-still. The issue is not whether most citizens support this which they may, it’s that countries must safeguard the rights of minorities as well as majority. Democracy simply as majority rule is fascism of the mob. It is this, more than anything that makes countries like Iran not a democracy. If the majority of people on a bus want it segregated, it should still be illegal to have a segregated bus. A mechanism to ensure the basic rights of the minority needs to be in place. In Israel, this mechanism is absent.