Time to Fight Back for Our Liberal Values

If we don’t defend liberal values now, we will soon lose the right to voice them.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Many in Israel are worried about the rise of Islamic regimes in our region. We should be no less worried by the theocratic tendencies in our own midst. We are at the point where influential figures like leading settler Benny Katzover and influential national-religious Rabbi Elyakim Levanon say openly that Israel’s democracy needs to give way to the rule of Jewish law.

We have gotten used to the spectacle of secular politicians cowering before religious authorities just for the sake of getting their votes. This is rooted in the original sin of Israeli politics: the lack of a complete separation of religion and state. The result has been that certain religious camps have stopped respecting us.

Time and again, in encounters and dialogues with certain national-religious and Haredi Jews, I realize that many of them sincerely think that liberalism is just a spineless attempt to justify hedonism and lack of commitment to greater values. No wonder that some of them seriously believe that a return to theocratic monarchy is an actual possibility.

I hear things like “All you care about is your espressos,” or “Oh, how surprising: you have actual values? Aren’t you all relativists for whom nothing is sacred?” or “Secular culture is shallow and rotten: all your secretaries must dress like sluts to keep their jobs."

They believe that we have neither the moral fiber nor the nerve to stand up for our values and beliefs. The result is open disregard for the principles of liberal democracy in certain quarters.

How has this come about? Part of it is rooted in recent religious tradition: The Hazon Ish, one of the great Haredi authorities in the early years of the state, famously told Ben-Gurion that Jewish secular culture is nothing but an “empty cart” that must give way to the “full cart” of traditional Judaism. And Rabbi Kook is supposed to have said that secular Zionism is only the Messiah’s donkey.

But part of this is the fault of secular culture. In the decades after the 1960s, postmodernist intellectuals attacked Western culture relentlessly as nothing but the source of the evils of capitalism and imperialism.

This led to the timidity of political correctness. Many liberals to this day think that they are required to respect every belief of other cultures, no matter how immoral or irrational, and that they cannot defend their own views forcefully.

This has changed in the last decade. Academics like Richard Dawkins and polemicists like the late Christopher Hitchens have mounted a counterattack on many aspects of religion in books like The God Delusion and God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

I believe that it is time for Israel’s liberal seculars to learn from Dawkins and Hitchens, to counterattack and show that our position is intellectually and morally better than that of our latter-day theocrats. We must show that modern science is vastly superior to any alternative attempt to understand the universe. We must not be afraid to say out loud that archeology shows that the famed kingdom of David and Solomon was nothing but a small tribal state with no relevance to running a modern state.

We must replace timid political correctness with an attitude of civilized disdain and expose the incoherence of a modern theocratic state. We must show that liberalism has always been the condition for scientific, technological and social innovation and make clear that all theocratic regimes in modernity end up as primitive backwaters - no matter what the religion.

We must expose the theocrats' ignorance of deep thought in modern political philosophy from Spinoza, Hobbes and Locke to Kant and John Stuart Mill, whose thought forms the foundation of liberal democracy.

We must show that liberal democracy is the only framework that allows for peaceful coexistence between groups with different beliefs and that, with all its failings, it is vastly superior to any other form of political organization that has been tried so far.

If they say that most modern political philosophers are not Jews, we must tell them that they think in tribal terms that are totally anachronistic today. We should say that we are proud that Jews have contributed enormously to world culture in the sciences, arts and technology. But we believe that our children and students should know the best of human thought from everywhere, and that far from emptying our cart, our openness makes it far richer than theirs.

If we don’t defend liberal values including the separation of religion and state forcefully now, we will soon lose the right to voice them.

Members of Israel Hofshit (Be Free Israel), an organization that promotes pluralism and religious freedom. The sign reads, "Waiting for the bus on Shabbat."Credit: Alon Ron



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