Understanding the new post-secular Israel

Understanding the new post-secular Israel

Yehudah Mirsky
Yehudah Mirsky

Dramatic as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wooing of Kahanists and likely indictments might be, a larger, subtler, but no-less- crucial drama is unfolding this Israeli election season, with likely consequences for years to come. After years of fragmentation, Israeli society seems to be consolidating anew — fusing Jewishness and nationalism, and decidedly on the right. 

Since the 1970s, the meta-story of Israel has been the steady crack-up of Labor, which, more than a party, was the central institution of Israeli life. While its policies ran politics and economics, its ideological synthesis of socialism, secular Jewishness, and Ashkenazi identity shaped society, arts, and culture. 

The Yom Kippur War of 1973 delivered a shock from which Labor never recovered. One of the many reasons for that was Labor’s deep alienation from religion. Its founders were in deep dialogue with the religious traditions of their youths, and honestly saw themselves as creating a new Jewish culture with its own interpretation of Jewish ideas and history. Their successors had no such inheritance, and over time, less and less ability to offer compelling Jewish visions of their own.

Menachem Begin’s historic election, four years later, began the ascent of new groups and ideas — more rightist, capitalist, religious, and Sephardic. Likud and its allies weren’t only challenging Labor’s policies, but attacking its unquestioned, firm hold on Israeli politics and culture. But Likud & Co. never attained Labor’s hegemony, and with the glue of Labor no longer fusing Israeli society together, the body politic splintered. 

Public battles over appointments to the courts, media, academia, and higher reaches of the IDF have become so bitter because those are seen, sometimes correctly, as Labor’s last strongholds. As President Reuven Rivlin bemoaned in a now-famous speech in 2015, Israeli society has divided into four tribes — secular, ultra-Orthodox, Religious Zionist, and Arab — each with its own educational system.

Now, two developments point to Israel’s Jewish body politic reconsolidating anew. The first is last summer’s controversial Basic Law (the closest Israel has to constitutional laws), defining Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” It pointedly, and deliberately, omitted the phrases “human dignity and liberty” and “Jewish and democratic,” central to an earlier (1992) Basic Law that had become anathema to the Israeli right; for that matter, the 1948 Declaration of Independence’s mention of “equality” was gone, too.

The second development is the decision by Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett to leave the Religious Zionist Jewish Home party to create, not a new religious party, but the New Right, which defines itself as “the true Right, which unifies religious and secular.” It argues that “the land of Israel is ours” (full stop), promotes free markets, de-regulation, unfettered hi-tech, civil rights for minorities, judicial restraint, and “loves Jewish tradition and wants the state to have a Jewish character without coercion.”

Bennett, though religiously observant, is, unlike previous Religious Zionist leaders, neither rabbi, scholar, nor religious ideologue. He emerged from the new Israeli leadership breeding grounds of elite IDF units and high-tech. Shaked is not herself religiously observant but of the firm conviction that religious tradition and sensibility are central to Jewish nationalism and statehood — whether one personally adheres to them in one’s private life or not.

And they are not alone. In a fascinating new Hebrew book, “#IsraeliJudaism,” leading pollster Camille Fuchs and my former colleague, journalist, and analyst Shmuel Rosner, offer exhaustive statistical analysis showing a Jewish population unequally divided into four groups — and not along the lines of Rivlin’s tribes.

The majority, 55 percent, they call “Jewraelis” — that is, Jews who score high on both keeping Jewish traditions (e.g. lighting Shabbat candles) and national practices (celebrating Independence Day, serving in the IDF).

Those who mostly practice nationality without tradition they call “Israelis,” hailing from old-fashioned Labor; they account for 15 percent of the population. Those who practice mostly Jewish traditions and many fewer Israeli practices, i.e. charedim, 17 percent. And those who, relatively speaking, embrace neither religion nor nationalism, regularly left-leaning, urban, 13 percent.

In other words, some 70 percent of Jewish Israelis are committed to both national identity and religious tradition in some form or another, with secular universalists and non-nationalist religionists at the extremes.

Crucially, this is not a return to religion, but yet another instance of what scholars have in recent years begun to identify as “post-secularism.” Not a “return” to religion — but something new.

Here as elsewhere it’s essential to differentiate between secularization and secularism. Secularization is a process in which religion cedes authority over politics and society to politics. It is also a process which, like industrialization or automation, shapes our world whether we like it or not. Secularism, though, is the claim that there is nothing more to this world than meets the eye, and religion has nothing to teach us that we need to know, and to be our best selves.

In Israel’s early decades, Religious Zionists passed through the crucible of secular ideology to create a new political kind of Judaism, one that they believed necessary for Judaism’s own survival. Now, secular nationalists like Shaked have passed through the crucible of political religion to create a new religiously infused nationalism, one they believe necessary for Israel’s own survival. It takes from secularism the idea of politics as something outside of religious authority, and from religion the idea that national identity will fade away if it’s not somehow connected, through tradition, and its sheer sense of ultimate truth, to heaven.

Much has gone into creating this situation, including Labor’s decades of alienation from tradition, and, in truth, Palestinian rejectionism’s killing off Israel’s left and hardening its nationalists.

What are the dangers here? That a Judaism wholly absorbed into nationalism makes moral and spiritual introspection impossible and invites the idolatry that, history teaches us, can easily crush liberals, ultra-Orthodox, and nationalists, too.

Nationalism — Jewish nationalism in particular — teaches us that humanity is not an abstraction but a family of human families, with their own languages, cultures, histories, landscapes, bodies, and needs.  Religion teaches us that we are to live by, and be judged by, moral and spiritual standards that rise above time and place. The state is, first and foremost, an instrument of coercion and power. Fusing religion into nationalism and the state makes moral criticism of the nation impossible, as the biblical prophets and their Talmudic successors well understood. 

Labor Zionism’s deep estrangement from its own religious heritage led to its own undoing. Religious nationalism’s inability to maintain a healthy balance of religion and nation may well undo it, too.

Yehudah Mirsky is a professor at Brandeis University’s Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and author of “Rav Kook Mystic in a Time of Revolution” (Yale University Press). This article is adapted from a lecture he recently gave as the Ivan Meyer Visiting Scholar at Cardozo School of Law. He tweets @YehudahMirsky.

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