How to Stop Israel's Democracy From Turning Into an Ethnocracy

Tomer Persico, a scholar of religion, says secular Israelis find themselves doubting their moral backbone because they don’t feel Jewish enough. To remedy that, they need to assert an autonomous Jewish identity that challenges the Orthodox narrative.

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Worshipers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, April 2016.
Worshipers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, April 2016.Credit: Emil Salman
Ayelett Shani

Talking to: Tomer Persico, 42, research fellow at the Hartman Institute and academic director of Midreshet Alma for Hebrew Culture, in Tel Aviv. Where: His office in Tel Aviv. When: Wednesday at 11 A.M. Wants to promote: His new book, 'Jewish Meditation: The Development of Spiritual Practices in Contemporary Judaism' (Hebrew).

As a person who is not secular, how do you define secularity?

Actually, in certain senses, I am secular. People define secularity wrongly – as a diminishment of belief and religious practice; but that is a very partial and limited definition. Secularization is far more than that. It entails the removal of more and more realms of power and knowledge from religion and their transfer to other authorities, such as the state, science, conscience. We are less and less in need of the religious establishment to tell us what’s good and what’s bad, what’s right and what’s not right, how we reached this pass, and how to educate our children. There is no doubt that the world we live in is secular in these senses. Every person can choose what he wants.

There seems to be a confusion between secularism and atheism.

The notion that the secular world is one from which religion has been removed is mistaken. For religion to be excluded from the public space, an ethos that would replace it had to emerge.

Humanistic values, I assume.

Drawing the values that impel our lives not from religion or from God but from within ourselves: from our reason, our conscience. In any event, every secular public space is filled with those values. True, they are challenged by the capitalist market, but there is no such thing as a public space devoid of values. In many cases, unfortunately, secular society in Israel forgets to defend the values it holds to be important.

Tomer Persico.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

There’s a parallel between secular society and the Israeli left-wing camp: After years of being delegitimized, they are no longer fully clear about their values.

When secular society had a simple answer to the question, “What makes me a Jew?” – it could stand tall in the face of religious society. Secular Zionism’s answer was, “I am a socialist, I am creating an exemplary society here, I have returned to the land where we dwelt historically. I am militant, I am a patriot, I am national in outlook – and thus I am a Jew.”

That narrative died.

And left behind a great many people who don’t really have an answer to the question of what makes them Jewish. Some of them look for the answer in all kinds of workshops, courses, ceremonies using challah; others have no problem with the cosmopolitan answer, “I am a citizen of the world and feel good about it.” But because those answers are not fully formulated and certainly do not cohere into any sort of backbone of Jewish identity, their proponents are bewildered when they encounter the demands of religiously observant people.

Would you suggest that the secular public articulate a sort of code for itself?

The secular public – and in this regard, I include myself among that public – must articulate an autonomous Jewish identity for itself, one that is not dependent on Orthodox Judaism to represent it. The Jewish tradition is packed with values that are easily translated into humanistic and even feminist language. It’s authentically ours. Of course, the tradition is also packed with other things, which are easily translated into racism and ethnocentrism.

Maybe we have simply been convinced that our cart is empty [referring to the parable – told by Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, the “Hazon Ish,” to David Ben-Gurion in 1952 – about an empty cart, signifying secularity, meeting a full cart, representing Orthodox Jewry, on a narrow road. According to the rabbi, the empty cart must make way for the full one].

Many have undoubtedly been persuaded. But if we look at the Jewish identity of the religiously observant community in Israel – both the ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionism – we find that it is far more impoverished than it seems to be from the outside. It looks very sure of itself, but there is very little original religious creative work going on. It’s often a meager identity, based on ethnocentrism, xenophobia, a false sense of superiority or the cloning of passages from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son, or from Rabbi [Joseph] Soloveitchik or Rabbi [Eliezer] Shach. But they have no answers to offer to the challenges faced by present-day Jewish society in Israel. It’s running on empty. It is not such a daunting challenge to put forward an alternative, autonomous identity that provides a decisive answer.

You recently quoted a survey that found that secular people feel far less comfortable in Israel.

It’s terrible. As you noted, secular Israelis find themselves doubting their loyalty to the collective, doubting their moral backbone, because they are not Jewish enough. They can thus be trampled underfoot and be forced to abide by customs they find unpalatable.

Such as being married by the rabbinate. Is that the reason you conduct marriage ceremonies?

I am trying to make possible an alternative to the Chief Rabbinate. It’s essential both for people who want a different kind of marriage ceremony, and also for the very sizable public prevented by issues related to halakha [traditional Jewish law] from being married through the rabbinate. The institution of the Chief Rabbinate behaves like a monopoly and a coercive establishment. This is religious coercion that is as grave as it is infuriating. People who want to get married in Israel are forced to stand under the canopy with an Orthodox rabbi. Even if they are not Orthodox, and perhaps object to Orthodoxy, they are forced by the state to get married this way.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews harvest wheat for shmura matzha, May 3, 2016.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

Is a change in the cards, now that technology is seeping into the Haredi world, causing it to crumble from within?

It’s true that the Orthodox establishment can no longer exercise the control it once did. The fundamental question is what kind of Judaism we want. Do we want an isolationist Judaism that entrenches itself in its own minutiae, contributing nothing to the world, or do we want a Jewish culture that has a religion but is much more than that? The situation is ridiculous. The Bible contains a universal vision, encapsulated in the simple slogan, “a light unto the nations.” That is the message of Judaism. Yet the groups we consider the most religious are precisely the most separatist and insular, and wield the least influence worldwide. The average Western person has never even heard the names of the revered local rabbinical sages. It’s absurd.

In a recent article, you argued that Israel is being transformed from a democracy into an ethnocracy.

I described a social process that has been underway in Israel for several decades, in which the body politic is increasingly bound up with ethnic origin. If you are Jewish, you get more. The state does not treat all its citizens equally, an approach that is grounded in a clear and explicit public demand. For example, there is a demand for the state to exonerate the soldier who shot the wounded Palestinian in Hebron [in March], only because he is Jewish and was supposedly defending the Jewish collective.

Doesn’t that case show that large segments of the public consider the judicial system irrelevant?

And why does the public feel that the judicial system is not giving expression to its values? Because those values are no longer the universal concepts of equality before the law, humanism and human rights; they are increasingly ethnocentric values of protecting the tribe, of preferential treatment. The basic Zionist vision is in the throes of a serious dilemma and will condemn itself to perdition, unless we somehow separate from the Palestinians. Either there will be a “state of all its citizens,” and thus the end of the Zionist vision in the sense of creating a national home for the Jewish people – or an apartheid state, meaning control over millions of people who have no rights and signifying the end of the Zionist vision of creating an exemplary society.

I think we have long since forsaken the idea of forging an exemplary society.

Meaning the end of the Zionist vision. I am certain that a great many Israelis want to live in a society of which they are proud and whose morality they admire. It’s not by chance that we constantly reiterate the mantras about “the most moral army in the world” and “the only democracy in the Middle East.” That vision is now slipping through our fingers. We will either have to reclaim it, or accept its demise, even legitimize the emerging new situation.

I truly believe that there is a large public that wants to be told that we are moral and will continue to uphold our morality. In the long term, the processes now underway in Israel will make it impossible to think that way. This public is waiting for a leader who will say, “We do not shoot a terrorist who is lying handcuffed on the ground.”

The defense minister who was fired said that, but the prime minister called the soldier’s father [to express moral support]. I don’t know if the public you’re talking about exists.

The question is whether this tendency will stop, or whether we will truly deteriorate into some sort of ethnocracy.

Why should it stop?

Anything can happen. If you remember, just 10 years ago, the settlers were Israel’s most hated group; the whole state, including the judiciary, the police and the media, rode roughshod over them. Now we are in a situation where the state’s institutions, the judiciary, the basic values of democracy and our universal values are being subverted.

But discrimination has always existed here, there have always been second-class citizens.

That’s true, and naturally I don’t justify it, but until the end of the 1990s, the trend was toward the liberalization of the public sphere, through legislation such as the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom. In the 1992 election, it was cool to be universalist, humanist, liberal. Did you have that in the 1950s? Not really, but at the basic level, all the elements of secular Zionism – from Jabotinsky to Ben-Gurion – always advocated the establishment of a democratic state and an exemplary society.

New Age vs. the system

One theme of your new book is the rise of the New Age phenomenon.

A mass phenomenon erupted in the mid-20th century: highly individualistic, anti-establishment religiosity that focused on experiences and emotions. It turned away from the Western traditions, away from the various forms of Christianity, and drew heavily on content from the East. New Age was truly subversive in those years, because it was also against the political and social establishments of Europe and the United States. Drugs, communes, hippies.

Tomer Persico.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Who were against the system.

And in a very committed way. Those people truly transformed their lives, hence the name “New Age.” The movement faded in the 1970s and 1980s, when the hippies grew up and became lawyers, without the revolutions of the 1960s having succeeded as they had wished.

So the system is stronger.

What happened was that the system learned how to deal with these people. They wanted to be true to themselves and express themselves authentically, and the capitalist system learned how to respond to those needs in the form of the products it offered them. If I want to be natural, I buy Teva [literally, “nature”] footwear, for example.

In other words, you can fill a void or define yourself through consumption, not necessarily of something material. You can be a consumer of a belief or a way of life. You write that New Age became a tool in the hands of capitalism.

New Age became a series of products for people in search of self-fulfillment and transformation. Workshops and courses were offered of a kind never seen in the history of the religions familiar to us. Taking a potpourri of elements from a range of sources, New Age turns them into a product, such as workshops in fasting and reincarnation. It reaches grotesque levels, in which one supposedly learns how to “suck in abundance from the universe.”

Like in “The Secret.” If you believe you’ll have a Porsche, and hang a picture of a Porsche in your house, you will have a Porsche.

Yes. The idea is not to change the way the system works but only to teach you how to navigate within it. At the heart of New Age lies an ethic of authenticity, which we all share today. We all want to be true to ourselves, to avoid betraying what’s most important to us and gives meaning to our lives.

What’s the solution for those who aren’t able to love what they have or to imbibe abundance?

There are spiritual techniques that work. Just because the market learned how to exploit the whole spectrum of beliefs for its needs doesn’t mean that you can’t find pure gold in it – but the search becomes more difficult. A byproduct of these processes is that individuality is augmented and our self-occupation is heightened. We are all very fearful for our autonomy and our freedom, and the world we live in gives us tools and incentives to go on being fearful for our autonomy.

What do you mean by “autonomy” and “freedom”?

We tend to define “freedom” as the desire not to have something forced on us from outside, but we deceive ourselves into thinking that there are no inner limitations or forms of coercion. When we think about it, we all know that we are not truly free solely because of ourselves: because we are addicted to something, because we are in love with someone, because we are afraid of something.

Secular and religious kids on a playground in Mazkeret Batya. Credit: Dan Keinan

Instead of changing the rules of the game for you, New Age becomes a kind of release valve for a pressurizing system and allows the system to go on battering you. The whole current trend of becoming religiously observant is also part of this. It’s the same search, except that it turns to the source of Judaism – but with the aim of fashioning a tailor-made Judaism for ourselves. It is not Orthodox penitence, acceptance of the burden of the precepts. The search is for the personal connection, the experience.

How does the kabbala get dragged into this – and I’m referring to Madonna’s kabbala, not the real thing?

Neo-kabbala is a variation on the kabbala of Rabbi Yehuda Leib Ashlag. The Kabbalah Center and Bnei Baruch, the two main movements, are continuing Ashlag, except that for him the observance of mitzvot [religious commandments] was essential, while for them it is not. Also, contrary to them, he certainly did not reach out to non-Jews or women.

What does neo-kabbala offer?

It’s a business that offers products: a red shoelace, holy water, courses to help you get into a state of balance, or mental improvement, even immortal life. Neo-kabbala is the Jewish yoga, the Jewish New Age product that has been wrenched from its context and is sold to every taker. Like yoga, like Vipassana [meditation], like shamanism, this is what Judaism has to sell to New Age at this stage.

Repairing upper worlds

You write in the book that Judaism has always made use of meditative techniques.

One of the interesting things I found is that there are many Jewish meditative techniques, and that they are different from one another in both practice and goal. The authors of the “Yordei Hamerkava” works, in the second to fifth centuries C.E., wanted to achieve a divine vision in the seventh heaven, to see God and possibly also obtain certain secrets from him. The kabbalists tried to repair the upper worlds, the Hasidim talk about clinging to God, an inner seething. I wanted to understand the social conditions that made possible or even necessitated the development of different techniques. Why, for example, did the Hasidim not continue with the Lurianic kabbala’s goal of repairing the worlds or coupling the spheres? Because they did not aspire to the upper worlds, but sought feeling, experience.

They focused on their own experience.

Yes, their interior essence. There is a clear move toward interiorizing. What we see in contemporary spirituality, in current Jewish New Age, is a peak of this interiorizing, in which what really interests spiritual seekers is the experience. Religious experience, spiritual experience, inner transformation, become the criteria for measuring the religious quality of the path and even of human life: Did I experience God or not?

Why do some rabbis object to meditative techniques for this purpose?

There is no good halakhic reason to forbid them, but they possess a very potent challenge to the tradition. Because, if the optimal encounter with God occurs when we look within ourselves, why do we need put on tefillin [phylacteries] in the morning? The divine covenant between God and the people of Israel, which is based on laws handed down to us from Mount Sinai, becomes superfluous if I can arrive at a good relationship with God.

Within myself.

Within myself and by means of a technique that has nothing to do with halakha. I think that this is one of the major challenges now facing the Jewish tradition as a whole.

Does one necessarily exclude the other?

Not necessarily. What’s interesting about many young religious observant people is that when they say, “We had a good prayer service,” they don’t mean that they stuck to every detail of the halakha, but that they experienced an inner connection. It’s precisely here that I see the transition from outerness to innerness, the interiorizing of the meaning of religion, which has ceased to be halakhic and is becoming experiential.

Do you see this as a growing trend?

Absolutely. The cycle I have just described, in which the focus of religious meaning moves from exterior to interior, is itself a private manifestation of a far more comprehensive phenomenon: the “subjective turning point of Western society.” The sources of meaning, authority and identity are moving from the outward to the inward in all aspects of life. In education and communications and morality, and in religion, too. A vast number of people engage in meditation or in some form of transformative spirituality. That constitutes a sea-change in the basic character of Western religiosity. From a traditional collective practice based on rules, prohibitions and rites, it is becoming more personal, private, internal and experiential. Instead of measuring my religiosity according to my faithfulness to a particular tradition and set of rules, I measure it according to my experiences, my feelings, my self-fulfillment.

User-tailored religiosity.

What we see in New Age and in contemporary spirituality is totally individual religiosity, in which religiosity is constructed according to one’s personal preferences. The impulse is not narcissism but rather the new ethos that is driving modern society, which calls on us to be true to our inner essence.

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