I Used to Love the Jewish Religion. Now I Fear It

The axis between nationalism and religion has produced occupation, isolation, arrogance, extremism, supremacism and racism

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Israelis wave national flags outside the Old City's Damascus Gate, in Jerusalem, May 13, 2018
Israelis wave national flags outside the Old City's Damascus Gate, in Jerusalem, May 13, 2018Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

I grew up in a religious household. My father was a scion of renowned sages, son of a rabbi and a wannabe cantor, who devoted his life to serving his country. We kept kosher, went to synagogue and sat for hours around our dining table singing Jewish zemirot at the top of our voices.

Four of my elementary school years were spent in a strict Orthodox day school in Los Angeles. Our more observant relatives may have viewed us as religious-lite, but amongst my secular and avowedly anti-clerical high school friends in Jerusalem, I was a virtual rabbi.

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Eventually I left home and abandoned the mitzvot but Judaism remained close to my heart. More often than not, I stood up for its adherents against the condemnation of my peers. As Proverbs says, “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, And all her paths are peace,” I cited, despite my growing doubts.

I believed that a democratic, liberal, egalitarian, tolerant and enlightened Israel would be Jewish by definition, and vice versa. The decision to deposit personal matters, especially marriage and divorce, in the hands of zealous Orthodox rabbis seemed like a reasonable price to pay for unity of the Jewish people and the internal strength of their new state.

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But Israel, along with the rest of the world, has changed since then, and so have I. What seemed like a reasonable compromise in Israel’s first years now looks like an intolerable assault on logic and decency in a vibrant and radically changed country in 2018.

Way before the nation-state law, Israel designated entire groups as second-class citizens. Today, hundreds of thousands of non-Jews, half-Jews, suspected bastards, Reform converts, LGBTQ members and those interested in intermarriage join the multitudes of Israelis who would rather not have an unknown rabbi and his strange halakhic ways imposed, by law, on their wedding. You can’t marry here, Israel tells them. Go look somewhere else.

I no longer enter synagogues in which men and women are separated, other than for mandatory family occasions. Judaism has a chauvinistic attitude toward women, and all the efforts to whitewash its approach by anointing women as queens of the family and maidens of modesty remind me of Southerners proving that in terms of safety, stability and wellbeing, African Americans were better off as slaves.

The same is true of the halachic rulings on gays, non-believers, atheists and what have you: There are only a few countries in which such primitive views are translated into official government policy. Iran and Saudi Arabia are on the list.

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The isolationist Orthodoxy is also largely responsible for the historic rift between Israel and American Jews. Week in and week out, politicians and rabbis in Israel mock their faith and question their Jewishness. We in Israel are used to rabbis expounding on Jewish supremacy, female frailties, LGBT perversions, Palestinian crimes, leftist perfidy and our unshakeable right to tell anyone who’s listening, whenever we feel like it, that we are the lords of the land. Israelis denigrate Reform and Conservative rabbis for promoting values such as human dignity, social justice and Tikkun Olam, which have largely disappeared from the profile of their Israeli counterparts.

Israel has embraced a different and far more arrogant and militant version of Judaism. The religious-nationalist craze that seized the Gush Emunim settler movement in the 1970’s has since metastasized to engulf religious-Zionism, infect the ultra-Orthodox, hypnotize secular nationalists and infiltrate politics and the media. The fatal connection between religion and nationalism has given us settlements, price tag attacks, Jewish terror, assault on the rule of law, war on human rights, seclusion, arrogance and racism too. It has made religion into the most prominent salesperson for the occupation.

The storms of controversy stirred in recent days by the discriminatory surrogacy law and the supremacist nation-state law are a stark reminder of the inexorable advances made by the religious-nationalist alliance. Time is clearly working against us. My childhood beliefs have somehow metamorphosed into a clear and present threat on my family, my values, my country and me. My sympathy has turned into fear.

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