One Option, Among Others

It is time to relegate the religious way of life to its proper place as one option equal to many others in Israel.

Whoever chose the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva for the despicable terror attack of March 6, in which eight students were killed, chose his target shrewdly, achieving two destructive goals in one blow: Not only did he provoke more strife between Jews and Palestinians; he also added fuel to the divisive flames of resentment harbored by the national religious public toward secular Jewish Israelis. This emerged not only in the rude way Education Minister Yuli Tamir was treated when she tried to pay a condolence visit to the yeshiva (as usual, members of the yeshiva community blamed "outsiders" or "stray weeds" for the ruckus), but also in comments, voiced by students and rabbis there, that are indicative of the cultivation of a pernicious superiority complex.

A 12th grader at the yeshiva high school explained to Yair Sheleg in this newspaper ("Days of Awe," Week's End, March 14) that the relationship between religious Zionism and secular Israeli society is like the relationship "between parents and a child; when the parents see that the child is doing something silly, they try to straighten him out, not out of arrogance but rather out of a sense of responsibility ..."

Had these been merely the views of one cocky (and justifiably upset) high school kid, we could simply chalk them up to adolescence, but he is not alone. That same day, in the weekend magazine of the mass-circulation Maariv, for example, Shalom Yerushalmi reported that in his conversations with both teachers and students at Mercaz Harav, he heard complaints about the lack of a dramatic response by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who used to visit scenes of attacks when he was mayor of Jerusalem. Said one of his interlocutors to Yerushalmi, "We are not just some terror attack in a mini-market" - as though scenes of carnage of eight randomly "chosen" Israeli civilians amid fragments of cereal boxes and smashed yogurt containers (or for that matter, of eight Palestinian civilians amid shreds of bedding and fragments of toys) are not every bit as outrageous as scenes of yeshiva boys slaughtered among holy books in a library.

That same 12th grader who spoke to Sheleg dismissed the interests of his secular peers as "the Champions League and Ninet's shaved head." This is like saying that religious youth are interested only in the diameter and color of a skullcap or how many centimeters of skirt fabric cover a girl's knees. Secular youngsters are just as passionate as yeshiva students about political beliefs, social action and intellectual pursuits, from the youth movement "communes" of high school graduates, who work in disadvantaged communities for a year before entering the military, and the high school volunteers in Magen David Adom, to the victory of the national high school English debating team at the Heart of Europe championship last month.

In their calls for "national unity," which are meant to be heard by the entire Israeli public, elders of the religious right also imply that the contents of a secular life are of little value. Speaking at a memorial for the victims of the attack, Mercaz Harav high school yeshiva head Rabbi Yerachmiel Weiss said: "In the Israeli experience, there is a unity of life, as salvation from death. When there is war, when there is danger, we unite, but we are not succeeding in creating contents of a healthy unity, not in order not to die, but rather as contents for life." What are the contents that would enable us to achieve national unity? Mercaz Harav Yeshiva head Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, speaking at the same assembly, described them as, "More Torah and faith. To connect with the bedrock of our origins. This is our role at this time. We must propagate the philosophy of this study center to the masses of Israel" (Haaretz, March 14).

Origins endure. Memories, first-hand or second-hand, of fathers or grandfathers or great-grandfathers wrapped in prayer shawls and learning Torah are images from the shared past of Jewish Israelis that is also a present reality for some. Though we can all cherish and respect that past, there is no need for non-religious Jews to buy into the contention that their own way of life in the here and now is of lesser value. If we Israelis allow ourselves, our elected leaders and our agents of law enforcement to behave even for one moment as though studying Torah is inherently superior to studying economics, Sanskrit or auto repair, we will be forced to relinquish values the majority of us hold dear - such as equal involvement by women and men in all intellectual and community activity, which is discouraged in Orthodox circles.

Dangerous shenanigans in the name of Torah, like Sunday's attempted pogrom in Jabal Mukkaber by right-wing youth, which could have ended quite badly in deaths of demonstrators, Palestinians and police, will continue to divert us from the major task facing us: resolving the conflict between Israel and most of the rest of the Middle East.

It is time to relegate the religious way of life to its proper place as one option equal to many others in Israel. It is time for all Israelis to work for real to resolve our differences with our Arab neighbors, who are facing a similar but already far harsher conflict within their own society between religious and secular views of the world. Not only the next Arab or Muslim terrorist from Hamas, Al-Qaida or anywhere else but also the next Baruch Goldstein or Yigal Amir might well be out there, ticking.

Vivian Eden is on the editorial staff of Haaretz English edition.