Jerusalem & Babylon / Returning to the Source of It All

The call to send students to Hebron seems like a response to the trend of youth looking for their Jewish roots

The chorus of ritual condemnation coming from the left and the leftist media at Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar's proposal two weeks ago to send Israeli high school students to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and the subsequent announcement by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon to send all diplomats and ministry cadets to "the cave," were both missing one detail I found especially intriguing. Neither of the two senior politicians are particularly religious.

Politics aside, they both appear to be archetypical products of the Israeli secular middle class. Neither has ever been involved in projects of an especially devout nature, indeed Sa'ar is currently the main hate figure of the ultra-Orthodox press for his attempts to encroach on the independence of the Haredi school streams. So why did they both decide to base clearly controversial schemes on what is, to all purposes, a religious symbol?

The easy answer, of course, is that it's all about politics. Sa'ar and Ayalon both have to appeal to a largely traditional constituency and if they are attacked for this move by the leftist-secular media, it only improves their rating with the base. But this is only part of the story.

While both are super-cynical and opportunist politicians, they also represent a fascinating trend in Israeli society. Despite the 11 years that separate them, Ayalon and Sa'ar belong to the same generation - Israelis born in the first two decades of independence, when whether you were of the right or left, there was basically one ideology: the struggle for the establishment of a Jewish state and the eternal effort to ensure its survival.

These were the new Israelis, the "children of the sun," different in every way from the pale and clever, but physically weak, Diaspora Jews. Tradition, certainly a religious one, had nothing to offer them. In their lifetime, the gulf between hiloni and dati Israelis, even those who participated in the mainstream and served in the IDF, grew exponentially.

Members of the dor hamedina, the secular "generation of the state," were different from their parents, many of whom had grown up in religious families and decided to build an alternative. They had no knowledge of Judaism, for them it was all about being Israeli and they did not feel the need to build a cultural alternative. Those who sought to reconnect with their Jewish roots were usually treated with derision.

The old secular Zionism loved the Bible, seeing in it the source of its socialist and Zionist beliefs; but Israelis born in the 1950s and '60s weren't interested in the words of Moses. If there was a Jew they looked to for inspiration, it was Bob Dylan.

The chief's speech

For over a decade, we have been hearing about "a return to the Jewish bookshelf," but in all my interaction with the various parties that have sprung up to discuss Maimonides and read the Bible from feminist and humanist perspectives, I formed the impression that this was still a minority taste. The second, third and fourth Israeli generations seem much more interested in making a fast buck and appearing on reality TV (preferably, making a fast buck by appearing on a reality TV show ).

Recently, though, I have a feeling that this return to the source is beginning to seep into the mainstream. I got a taste of it during the IDF changing of the guard two weeks ago. No speech, by outgoing Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, his replacement Benny Gantz or even Benjamin Netanyahu, was complete without a major biblical reference. It may be fair to translate the biblical allusions in their speeches to their need to create a bond with increasingly religious ranks of the officers' corps, but again I feel there is something deeper at play.

And I get the same vibe in other places - in my meetings with young soldiers taking an interest in the historical past of the places where they train and operate; in a writing workshop I have been giving, to mostly secular twentysomethings, who are choosing biblical texts for their exercises. More and more young Israelis are looking to hook up to a primeval Jewish source.

And no, this does not seem to be a new wave of hazara betshuva. There is no corresponding interest in keeping mitzvot on a daily basis. If anything, those who were born into religious families are starting to avail themselves of this atmosphere in which you can be hip by being interested in Judaism, but can still choose whatever lifestyle you like. Nor does the increasing affinity to yiddishkeit necessarily signal a rightward trend in voting patterns.

Neither Sa'ar nor Ayalon believe that in a future peace solution between Israel and the Palestinians, Hebron or even the Tomb of the Patriarchs will remain under Israeli sovereignty. But they feel comfortable advocating visits to the site for the time being. Both are canny pols with a good sense of the public atmosphere; if they both focused their latest initiative on the ancient site that may or may not be the final resting place of the stars of Genesis, they figured it would also appeal to the Israeli mainstream.