Opinion |

What Do Secular Israelis Believe In?

Against the background of the growing religionization of Israel, the occupation with secular identity shows that it’s a flimsy ideology that doesn’t truly exist in its own right

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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A playground in Jerusalem.
Credit: Emil Salman
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

Can secularism become a religion? On the face of it, the term “secular religion” is an oxymoron. But across history there have been cases in which a secular, antireligious worldview became a quasi-religion itself. A prominent example is the Monist League, founded by the biologist and scholar of evolution Ernst Haeckel in Germany in 1906. The Lutheran, Catholic and Calvinist churches were still very powerful and even had legal status in early 20th-century Germany. Haeckel and the group of secularists he organized viewed religion as a twisted, dangerous fraud, and they rejected belief in revelation. They demanded that the younger generation be educated “on the basis of the modern natural sciences,” and asserted that the human spirit is nothing more than a function of the gray matter in the brain, with no existence independent of the body.

To disseminate their views, the Monists published a collection of 30 “theses,” which contained the principal tenets of their belief. They stated, for example, that the soul, or which they described as the human organ of thought, is a certain region of the brain, and that morality must be based on the principle of “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” They declared the establishment of a rationalist religion, to be based on the trinity of truth, morality and beauty. It is the duty of the people’s representatives to see to it that the humanistic religion is recognized officially and that it is guaranteed a status equal to that of other religions, Haeckel stated.

Thus, from its very birth, the secular Monist worldview became a genuine religion, suspiciously similar to certain versions of Protestant Christianity. A similar paradox attends no few movements of ideological secularism in terms of the formulation of their basic principles. In trying to coalesce into an ideology, secularism becomes a quasi-religion; or alternatively, discovers that it lacks content of its own.

More than two decades ago, in the period after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, a cultural movement began emerging among Israel’s bourgeoisie involving a return to their forebears’ traditions and connecting with the “Jewish bookshelf.” Now there are perhaps incipient signs that the pendulum is swinging in the secular direction. That, at least, can be inferred from an examination of some newly published books.

In the past few weeks alone, a number of new Hebrew-language books have appeared that address the conceptual, political and historical foundations of Israeli secularism: a manual for secular people subtitled “How Not to Believe without Apologizing,” by the historian Aviad Kleinberg; “The Secular Way,” by Ram Fruman, the chairman of the Secular Forum; “The New Secularism,” by the philosopher Shlomi Sasson; and “The Story of the Secular Jews” by legal scholar and former cabinet minister Amnon Rubinstein. They were preceded by a 2015 collection of articles, “Secularization and Secularism,” edited by the deputy director of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, Yochi Fischer.

What accounts for this boom in engagement with secular identity, precisely at a time when the public domain seems to be becoming more religious than ever before? Perhaps the need for such books stems from the feeling among secular Israelis that they are under siege. Until not long ago, secularism was considered the default option for Israeli society, and required no explanation or justification. But in recent years the secular public has been relegated to the position of being just one among the various different groups constituting society, and at times even has the feeling that it’s a minority. That situation calls for the distillation of the core of secular identity – or, if you will, of the tenets of secular belief.

In fact, until recently, apart from among very small circles, Israeli secularism was not an ideology in its own right. Kibbutzim of the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement served bread on Passover, but secularism was seen as another aspect of Marxist materialism. In the ruling Mapai party, the forerunner of Labor, secularism was subordinate to the national project. And even the League for the Prevention of Religious Coercion, the most militant antireligious organization in Israel’s history, was led by loyalists of the broader Canaanite ideology.

It has been the various modern ideologies – and not secularism itself – that have imbued secular Israelis with a sense of identity. Yosef “Tommy” Lapid’s Shinui and Yesh Atid, led by his son, Yair, are both parties of the middle class, and secularism has had no autonomous standing in them, either. The fact is that the younger Lapid quickly sold out his commitment to secularism, declaring in 2015 that “I am a believing person.” The demand to draft yeshiva students, which is the main struggle of this type of secularism, is more class-based and militaristic than a battle for a particular worldview.

It’s only in recent years that a coherent ideological secular awareness has begun to take hold here. It has been influenced in part by the “New Atheism” school of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – a rigorous set of beliefs that’s based on the supremacy of science, and which accuses religion of spreading ignorance and violence. The leading proponent of this type of secularism in the Israeli public arena is TV host Lior Schleien, who delivers monologues mocking the Bible and presenting God as an “imaginary entity.”

Schleien is not necessary a left-winger, and not your most liberal type. He’s pure secular. But Schleien’s secularism also illustrates the superficiality of this ideology, which is based largely on arrogant sneering at religion. This is a primitive version of secularism, one that portrays the religious public as dummies on the basis of rationalist arguments that were already creaky 200 years ago.

The new books about secularism go deeper, but precisely for that reason, it turns out that they fail to vest secular identity with substantive content. Aiming to provide a foundation for the Jewish-secular tradition, Rubinstein, for example, tells the familiar stories of such intellectual luminaries as Einstein, Freud, Kafka and others. But none of them has any connection to contemporary Israeli secularism, nor much of one to Judaism, either. It was with good reason that the historian Isaac Deutscher termed them “non-Jewish Jews.”

For Shlomi Sasson, a secular individual is one who adopts even part of the secular universe of values, and he extends that definition to encompass “everyday secular” people, who needn’t espouse a true secular ideology. Here, too, the definition of secular identity is quite lax, and seems to be lacking in content.

Kleinberg emphasizes that secularism lacks tenets of belief – it does not offer an explanation for the world or a system of rules. The secular individual is a free person, he says, who refuses to accept authority without proof. But Kleinberg would certainly agree that most people, religious or secular, create their outlook subject to mentors of one kind or another, be they rabbis, New Age guides or standup comics. A critical stance and an ability to cast doubt on conventions are rare among secular folk.

In contemporary Israel, secularism is primarily a sociological categorization based on a contrarian approach to the trappings of Orthodoxy. Ultimately, the attempts to ground a secular ideology demonstrate that Israeli secularism in itself lacks true conceptual depth. Maybe it’s better that way.