Don’t Tell Me to Pray

Of course the families of the boys have every right to seek heavenly mercy in their time of tragedy. But on the national level, this automatic pairing of concern with prayer is harmful.

Olivier Fitoussi

For a week now, I keep hearing that I should pray for the safe return of the kidnapped teens. But I’m not praying for their safe return. Not because I don’t yearn and hope with all my heart for their safe return. But because I don’t pray. I don’t pray because I’m not a religious person and don’t believe in any form of higher power. I of course respect other people’s right to believe and to pray. But in the past week I’ve come to feel that too many people are not respecting my right. And this lack of respect goes hand in hand with a sociopolitical process with implications that go beyond the realm of faith and religion.

Israel was not founded as a theocracy. Unfortunately, separation of religion and state was not introduced at the time, and now it’s too late. But through the years, a kind of status quo has at least been maintained, not only on the practical level of daily life but also on the theoretical level. Until recently, it could be taken for granted that one could lead a full, complete life in Israel as a person who was nonreligious, nonbelieving and non-praying. This fundamental comprehension has been rapidly eroding for some time, and last week’s kidnapping may mark a crossroads in this process.

The heading that tops the pages of Hebrew daily Israel Hayom’s coverage of the kidnapping blares “With Concern and Prayer.” This word pair certainly expresses the prevailing mood in Israel. “Concern” and “prayer” are welded together, presumably a result of the fact that the kidnapped teens are religiously observant, from religious families that live in religious settlements. I don’t recall there being in the previous national psychosis, the one surrounding captive soldier Gilad Shalit, who grew up in a secular family in a secular community, such a strong and coercive prayer component. It’s idiotic, this difference. But people don’t notice the shakiness of the logic behind it.

An increasing number of nonreligious Israelis are being swept into the stream. It’s not just the predictable prayer rallies of the religious settler right wing. Public figures and media personalities from across the political and theological spectrum are parroting how important it is to pray and how “everyone is praying.” From the Knesset, where on Monday a prayer service featured elected officials reading Psalms and the blowing of a shofar, to Channel 2 television’s morning show, where host Avri Gilad donned a large skullcap and announced a “mass prayer” on television, led by Rabbi David Stav, as cohost Hila Korach urged skeptical viewers to “peel away their cynicism.” Who exactly are the cynics here?

Of course the miserable families of the boys and their communities have every right to seek heavenly mercy in their time of tragedy. But on the national level, this automatic pairing of concern with prayer is harmful, even dangerous. First, because – as a result of the difficult situation, “Israeliness” is being reshaped to exclude other identities (secular, agnostic, atheist and of course – non-Jewish citizens). But more important, this is an ideological linkage. In the current situation, the appeal is mainly to a very specific God – the God of the settler right wing, which wants to bring the boys home and at the same time to assist the soldiers of God’s army in their holy fight against the Palestinian Amalek. This linkage of religion, army and a messianic occupation and settlement enterprise is terrible. It has been creeping into the Israel Defense Forces for years, and now it threatens to go beyond the Green Line and the army bases. No higher power will stop it. We can only by stop it by ending our blindness and idleness.