Representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths, speaking on June 27 at the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel’s (ICCI) annual lecture, considered the highly sensitive subject of religion's role in Israel’s 63-year-old democracy.

Religious leaders can and should play an important role in supporting democratic values in Israel, said Yair Sheleg, a newspaper columnist, senior researcher at The Israel Democracy Institute and a religious Jew. “We also need the collaboration of the religious leaders,” he said. “They should tell their believers to obey democratic decisions as a religious principle.”

Because both Islam and Judaism have their own internal religious laws that sometimes include the public sphere, they are the most problematic in the context of democratic law, said Sheleg.

“We have lot of practical clashes between Muslims and democratic decisions by the Israeli establishment,” he said. “But truly the most problematic religion in these terms is Judaism. Not only is this the religion of the majority, but it also has so many laws and rules, many regarding the public sphere, that there are a lot of practical clashes between the democratic system and the power of religion.”

He noted this would include the ultra-Orthodox who do not accept majority decisions about the Sabbath and religious settlers who do not accept majority decisions on withdrawal and evacuation of settlements.

Responses to Sheleg’s remarks were given by Mohammad Darawshe, co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, who is Muslim, and the Rev. Samuel Fanous, Anglican pastor of Emmanuel Church in Ramla.

A secular Muslim who identifies with his religious heritage, Darwashe said Israeli democracy was closer to an “ethnic democracy” which gives preferential treatment to its Jewish citizens with representative democracy for Arab citizens rather than “power sharing.”

“The problem in Israel is to determine what is the nature of Jewish democracy ... we still need to create a new Israeli identity and also provide space for autonomy of each of the different cultures here,” said Darwashe. “The question is how can we create a shared space to belong to the same unit.”

Darwashe stressed that he did not believe in the concept of “religious democracy,” and said only a secular democracy could succeed. “Just because we share a monotheistic belief is no guarantee that we believe in one culture. It is no guarantee that we can build a democracy based on religion,” he said.

Noting that Jesus did not have a political agenda, Fanous added that the basic tenet of loving God and loving one’s neighbor ― even an enemy ― implies that there must be equality in a free society but religious values should not be used politically.

“The land needs love. The moment you dominate the land you lose it,” said Fanous. “By loving each other and not controlling each other that is the basis for democracy.”