Secular Zionism's Other Failure

Jeremy Rosen
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Jeremy Rosen

The dream of many 19th-century secular Zionists was to see the religion of the ghetto replaced by a new and healthier socialist humanism. They succeeded, for a spell. Yet in the long run, their ideology failed to win the hearts and minds of most Israelis. The kibbutz has dismantled itself as a collective community, and most Israelis have embraced an aggressive, market-based capitalism.

Israel has also failed to fully adopt the secular model. As a result, we have ultra-Orthodox Jews sitting in governments and influencing everyone in a Zionist homeland, a state of affairs that may be the secular idealist's worst nightmare. The way that other parties, some religious, some not, are able to impose the settler agenda on the entire nation, is another example of how small political parties can misuse power.

Of course not all Orthodox politicians tend only to their own narrow interests. If the late Avraham Ravitz (UTJ) was widely loved and respected in Israeli society, it was because he spoke a language everyone could understand, and never lost sight of his mission as a servant of the entire public, even as he fought for his own party.

Berl Katzenelson (1887-1944) was probably the one man in the old Mapai world who tried to achieve some sort of synthesis between secular Zionism and religion, but he failed to have the impact he should have had, probably because he died too soon and his ideas remained outside the political establishment.

Yet I believe that secular Zionism still has something to offer, a legacy that could benefit both sides of the religious divide.

During the 1950s, the secular majority was dominant and all-powerful. Out of the centrist Mizrahi movement developed the National Religious Party, which joined David Ben-Gurion's ruling coalition in exchange for the state signing off on matters of personal status to the rabbinate, state support for religious education, and the fixing of the notorious "status quo," which imposed some degree of religious law on most of the country. Ben-Gurion thought he was doing the Jewish people a favor by compromising for the sake of unity. In fact, the arrangement caused tension, conflict and ill feeling on both sides.

As a consequence of these compromises, religious parties actually exacerbated the secular-religious conflict. They needed to attract new voters, something they did by demanding state funds for their school systems, where they indoctrinated future voters. That was why Mapai and its allies fought so hard to undermine religion. But the hostility and condescension toward the religious and to the traditional lifestyles of new Mizrahi immigrants eventually backfired - the resulting resentment led to Menachem Begin's election, and an overthrow of the old order.

That moment of change could have served as an opportunity to create a completely new system; unfortunately, though, past inadequacies were perpetuated.

In fact, Israeli society has only become more polarized since that Likud upset, one result of which is that small parties can become powerbrokers and exact their prices accordingly. When they represent religious interests, they can condition their political support on the government satisfying their special interests.

It need not be this way. In most Western societies, religion is accorded state recognition and receives aid, without a need for specific religious parties. In the United Kingdom, for example, there are no religious parties, and yet Anglicans, Catholics, Jews and Muslims are treated with respect, both legally and politically, and receive financial support. They in turn focus on spiritual and humanitarian issues rather than on the political.

Israel could rid itself of its many small parties, including the religious ones, if it raised the bar for entry into the Knesset or switched to a "constituency" system, by which voters would choose individual candidates from a small number of large parties.

It is usually argued that the tensions in Israeli society are too deep and antagonistic to allow for the tolerance that exists elsewhere. I am not convinced. The fact is that the two historically dominant secular parties, today called Labor and Likud, could easily have cooperated in reforming the political system to exclude small parties, but they mistrusted each other so much that they betrayed their own secular values. The result is that religious interference in state affairs has created a situation that damages religion as well as social cohesion, with people in both camps ready for a change.

That is why I argue that the secular community should cast off its old loyalties and petty concerns and unite over one cause: excluding religious parties from power and separating state from religion. This alone would justify the secular Zionist heritage and in the process do religion a giant favor, because wherever there is separation, religion actually flourishes. Just look at the United States.

Of course, as a religious Jew, I want to see Jewish Israelis be religiously committed, but without alienating or coercing people, and in adhering to democratic and ethical values and freedoms. Secular Zionism should stand for the separation of state from religion. I have no doubt God would approve. As a result, religion might regain its spiritual and moral leadership role instead of being so reviled.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, the former principal of Carmel College, London, is a writer, and a professor at the Faculty of Comparative Religion, in Antwerp.

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