After World War II, I participated in many demonstrations against the British, who were ruling this area at the time. All those demonstrations used the slogan, “Free immigration! A Hebrew state!” I can’t remember a single demonstration at which people shouted, “Free immigration! A Jewish state!”
Back then, “Jewish state” sounded like a paradox to us. Everything pertaining to the Jewish community in the Land of Israel was “Hebrew.” Everything pertaining to Jewish communities in the Diaspora was “Jewish.” There was Hebrew agriculture, a Hebrew underground, the first Hebrew city. There was Jewish religion, a Jewish Diaspora, Jewish immigration.
One can leaf through any newspaper published here before the state’s establishment: The term “Jewish” as applied to things created in this land was virtually nonexistent. The spoken language had adopted this distinction long before the small group of writers and artists who took it to extremes had arisen. This group, which Avraham Shlonsky derogatorily termed “the Canaanites,” claimed we had no connection with the Jews at all; rather, we were an old-new “Hebrew” nation that had leapfrogged over 2,000 years in the history of the Jewish Diaspora.
If so, how did it happen that the declaration of the state’s establishment in 1948 spoke of a “Jewish state”? To understand this, it’s necessary to go back to the reality of those days. In the eyes of the British, there were two peoples in this land: Arab and Jewish. Thus the UN resolution on partition decreed the establishment of an Arab state and a Jewish state. The Declaration of Independence was based on this resolution, and therefore declared the establishment of “a Jewish state ... the State of Israel.”
At that time, the Jewish religion in this land was at a nadir. As a boy, I lived for some time on the moshav of Nahalal. Its founders lived for many years in miserable wooden huts. When they were able to build stone buildings, they built cowsheds, and only afterward did they build modest houses for themselves. Then they built a milk processing plant, and then a community center, Beit Ha’am. There was also a synagogue – a small, out-of-the way hut where the old people prayed.
The general feeling was that the Jewish religion in this land was dying, and would die for good when the old men and women who still clung to it passed away. Zionism, we believed, had come in place of religion.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, thought the same. Otherwise, it would never have entered his head to exempt yeshiva students from army service, which he viewed as sacred. The exemption of a few hundred students was, for him, a good way to solve his coalition problems.
For the same reason, he allowed the establishment of the state religious school system. “The old man” liquidated the school system affiliated with the left-wing workers’ movement because he saw it as a danger to the state’s sovereignty. But he permitted the state religious system because he was convinced religion was dying and didn’t constitute a threat.
The religious kibbutz movement was also a withered limb, the stepchild of the secular agricultural settlement movements. And the ultra-Orthodox, somewhere out on the fringes, merited at most a tolerant smile; they aroused nothing but pity.
Toward the end of the 1950s, the wheel began to turn. This was due to several developments that had no relation to each other but had a cumulative impact.
First, as the horrific details of the Holocaust were gradually revealed, the Israeli community began experiencing remorse. After all, we were living here in (relative) happiness and plenty while Jews were being slaughtered over there en masse. Later, the Eichmann trial caused a revolution in Israelis’ consciousness.
Another development was the mass immigration from Islamic countries. The new arrivals were moderate religious traditionalists, just as the Muslims in those countries were back then. The Bulgarian rabbi in Jaffa would ride his bike on Shabbat to watch the Bulgarian team’s soccer games. But the Mizrahi rabbis, who hailed from the Middle East and North Africa, fell captive to the fanatic Ashkenazi rabbis of the non-Hasidic “Lithuanian” sect. They adopted the Lithuanians’ clothing and became more extreme in their turn.
High fertility rates in the religious and ultra-Orthodox communities gradually changed the demographic picture. And instead of shrinking, as Ben-Gurion had hoped, the religious and ultra-Orthodox school systems grew by leaps and bounds.
The dramatic turning point, however, was the Six-Day War of 1967. The stunning victory by the secular Israel Defense Forces turned into a religious celebration; “The Western Wall is in our hands” became the battle cry of the religious fanatics.
The religious Jewish public, which until then had been humble and demeaned, suddenly became aggressive and demanding. The National Religious Party, which until then had been the most moderate party in the government, changed its spots and switched to the side of radical nationalism. Its youth, products of the state religious school system and the Bnei Akiva youth movement, gave birth to the extremist settlements.
Recently, we have witnessed a new phenomenon. In the past, a yawning chasm of hatred divided the national religious youth from their ultra-Orthodox counterparts. Now they have begun hooking up. The national religious are becoming more religiously ultra-Orthodox, while the ultra-Orthodox are becoming more nationalistically fanatic.
The recent atrocities perpetrated by national religious “hilltop youth” and ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students are the writing on the wall (literally). The settlement youth, together with disturbed people who have returned to religion, are imbued with incomparably greater zeal than the youth of the “Tel Aviv bubble” and the rest of the secular public.
History has many examples of countries in which hardy people from the periphery took over a center that had gone soft. The frontier folk are used to war, while the centrists create culture.
Prussia, a remote peripheral region that perpetrated an ongoing genocide, took over Germany. The remote Piedmont region united modern Italy. Two millennia ago, Jews from the Galilee took over Jerusalem and brought about its destruction. The Manchus took over China, while the Japanese took over East Asia during World War II.
This danger is now hovering over Israel. The settlers are neither “wild weeds” nor youth from the margins. They constitute an extreme and immediate threat to everything that has been built in this country in recent generations. The Hebrew state is disappearing, and in its place, the Jewish state is taking over.
And this isn’t the Judaism that arose during 2,000 years in exile – the Judaism of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, the Judaism of a dispersed community that loathed violence. We are now witnessing a mutation of Judaism, a new Judaism – fanatic, violent and now murderous as well. It is liable to bury the state, just as it buried the Second Temple.
The state can still be saved. But to do so, the real Israel – the secular, national Israel – must wake up. We need the courage to change before disaster strikes.
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