A Knife in the Back of Secularism

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A scene of “Gav Ha’Umah” “Back of the Nation.”
A scene of “Gav Ha’Umah” “Back of the Nation.”Credit: Adi Shaham

The cancellation of “Gav Ha’umah” is an act of oppression and an assault on the very right to be secular in Israel, and the timing is no coincidence

While everyone focused on the attacks against the creators of “Hayehudim Ba’im” (“The Jews are Coming”), yet another anti-secular attack took place: the cancellation of “Gav Ha’Umah” (“Back of the Nation”). Though it was not committed in darkness and no lives were threatened, its implications are just as grave.

Yes, presumably the main reason for the program’s cancellation was Benjamin Netanyahu’s desire to make the scathing criticism of him dished out by Lior Schlein and Co. go away. We know that oligarch Len Blavatnik volunteered to buy the Reshet network at Netanyahu’s request, and as soon as Reshet merged with Channel 10, the countdown began in the operation to clear out the nests of resistance. Barak Ravid and others were already removed. Now it’s Schlein’s turn, and he obviously won’t be the last to lose his job because of his political views.

But this cancellation is of acute significance to the secular public. While it’s true that “Eretz Nehederet” (“Wonderful Country”) and “Hayehudim Ba’im” both convey uncompromisingly secular messages, “Gav Ha’Umah,” because of its more direct nature, was our home and our fortress: the place where we could feel that in the midst of the country’s dominant and preachy religious discourse, there was still a place of sanity where secular and even atheist ideas had a place, even a place of honor.

This program gave us a strong sense of support. Only there could we watch in prime time people who think that God revealing himself to man is a human invention and that the Jewish religion is primarily a collection of uncompromising tasks, not just the kitschy Yiddishkeit they try to wrap it in for our consumption. In his uncompromising stance, Schlein became the symbol of the secular Israeli. So when he is taken off the screen, it’s akin to chopping off the head of secular Israelis.

This act hurts secular people on more than just a symbolic level: When we noticed the trend of religious coercion within the public school system, “Gav Ha’Umah” was one of the first places to pick up on our messages. With its popularity as a television show and the unique way it addressed the issue, “Gav Ha’Umah” became one of the main places where secular Israelis learned about the spread of religious coercion in their children’s schools. That message may not have been conveyed as effectively if not for the work of Schlein and his cohorts. From this comedic presentation, secular Israelis learned about the creeping denial of their rights – in the schools, the army, hospitals and the public space in general. No other program contributed as much to the creation of a secular consciousness.

This isn’t meant to belittle the importance of the program’s treatment of other issues, such as Netanyahu’s governmental corruption and the ass-kissers around him, and the erosion in the standing of government institutions, particularly the justice system. But these are things that are also frequently covered by other media outlets and programs, while there are far fewer voices propounding a secular worldview as incisively and intensively as Schlein, certainly not in prime time.

Which is why I insist on viewing the removal of “Gav Ha’Umah” from the screen as something more than just another of Bibi’s attempts to suppress any opposition. It is an act of oppression and an assault against the very right to be secular in the Israeli public sphere. The timing of the show’s cancellation, and of the uproar against “Hayehudim Ba’im,” which for some reason only began in the show’s fourth season, is not coincidental.

Today, rather than the unity government weakening the standing of the Haredim, it has strengthened it. Witness all the government decisions regarding the coronavirus that are influenced more by Haredi politics than by public welfare. Meanwhile, with Yamina sitting in the opposition, for the first time Naftali Bennett, Bezalel Smotrich and their colleagues have been able to create a religious opposition that is challenging the Haredim as well as the religious MKs from Likud and Kahol Lavan, and encouraging them to intensify their anti-secular positions.

Secular political consciousness is still far from reaching its inherent electoral potential, but it has come a long way in recent years. Meretz, the longtime carrier of the secular banner, is no longer alone. Yisrael Beitenu has become a dominant secular player and has broken the equation of secularism with the left. Pressure from left and right is causing Yair Lapid to return to his secular base. And if all that weren’t enough, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who has lately positioned himself as a secular leader, recently declared that he is seriously considering throwing his hat in the ring.

The cancellation of “Gav Ha’Umah” and the assault on “Hayehudim Ba’im” should be understood as a religious-Haredi attack that is exploiting its political power to stifle the awakening secular power. We secular Israelis need to understand this and boost our political strength.

Schlein should also grasp the new rules of the game and turn to the political arena. No one is better suited to lead this movement, and now that we’ve learned not to put our trust in spineless generals, the time has come for a leader who’s proven he has a solid ideological back.

The writer is the chairman of The Secular Forum and author of the book “The Secular Way.”

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