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In Israel of 2016, These Are Indeed the Awful Days

As far as the politicians are concerned, there really isn’t a place for anyone secular, free or — God forbid — atheist.

Uri Misgav
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An Israeli walks down one of Tel Aviv's main streets during Yom Kippur, when the city grinds to a halt. 2015.
An Israeli walks down one of Tel Aviv's main streets during Yom Kippur, when the city grinds to a halt. 2015. Credit: Ofer Vaknin, Haaretz
Uri Misgav

The politicians have managed to ruin even the High Holidays. Their incessant religious jabber and nationalist Judaism is continuing ad nauseam.

Rosh Hashanah was my favorite holiday as a child. I was excited to wear a white shirt, crumble pomegranate seeds into a large bowl and sing, “Next year we’ll sit on the balcony and count migrating birds.” When Sukkot came, I loved gathering in the kibbutz’s communal sukkah and the smell of citrus fruit.

When I grew older, I learned to embrace the Tel Aviv version of Yom Kippur, with the pervading quiet, bicycles, slow walks and chance encounters in the streets. But this year, I feel there’s no room for me anymore. The politicians’ heavy stomping is deafening. They’re desperately looking for paths to the heart of some imagined public and they’re contaminating the civil and ideological space of the free man along the way.

There’s no way to escape them. You close the door on one, and another enters through the window. Their declarations interrupt each other. Naftali Bennett, who made a fortune after selling his high-tech company, announces that Judaic studies are more important than mathematics. His colleague Ayelet Shaked is drafting a new legislative ideology based on strengthening “the Jewish component.” I don’t believe a word they say. It’s highly doubtful they believe themselves, but still, this is the education minister and justice minister we’re talking about.z

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog is sharply denying the rumors that his party is in negotiations to join the governing coalition. “I’m sitting in the synagogue for close to four hours yesterday, and toward the end some insane whisper starts, I’m pulled outside It could have waited, people are praying, after all.”

Meanwhile, the self-appointed shadow prime minister and foreign minister, Yair Lapid, is documenting a “penance tour” his faction held in Jerusalem. “We walked amid small synagogues, along winding alleys, peeking at pashkevils [Yiddish for street posters], offering citrons and palm fronds, smiling at a lit sign on a balcony: ‘God loves every Jew.’ Someone sang, ‘We’ve sinned before you’ and we answered, ‘Have pity on us.’ Ruth Calderon read a nice Talmudic tale. Aliza Lavie recited a Hannah Szenes bit We came from all parts of the earth after 2,000 years of exile to establish a Jewish state.”

Then comes Haaretz’s pre-Yom Kippur poll of Knesset members: Do you believe in God? A sensational journalistic document. The results themselves aren’t the real story. Let everyone believe or not believe whatever they want — a private belief in God doesn’t require a particular political position. What is astonishing is the sycophancy and cowardice. Thirty-nine MKs, a third of the Knesset, avoided giving an answer — most of them from the right wing and Yesh Atid, including the heroes Lapid, Ofer Shelah and Jacob Perry. Strange. It may well be a personal question, but not an especially invasive one. It even seems legitimate for interested citizens to know if their elected officials believe in the existence of a higher power that created and guides the world.

Of those who answered in the affirmative, the secular MKs from mainly the centrist and left-wing parties stood out. How they wrapped their way of life with layers of explanatory apologies. How much sweat and effort they poured into making it clear to the nation that they have a strong affinity for tradition and wonderful memories from their childhood home.

Only nine out of 120 dared to say they didn’t believe in God. Most of them preferred to write twisting, apologetic scrolls to soften the blow, to sweeten the bitter medicine and somehow help it go down the public’s throat. Only two righteous individuals — Yoel Razvozov (Yesh Atid) and Tamar Zandberg (Meretz), in her initial answer — simply said “no.”

It turns out that as far as the politicians are concerned, in Israel of 2016 there really isn’t a place for anyone secular, free or — God forbid — atheist. It’s also extremely advisable to be Jewish, because then God loves you and the state belongs only to you. Awful days indeed, have mercy on us.

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