Opinion

In Israel, Religion Is Only the Hammer

It’s not about observance, it’s about nationalism – and sanctifying the Israeli army

Cadets at the IDF officers school at the Bahad 1 base in southern Israel.
Alex Levac

“There is no Jewish existence without the Bible. In my view, there’s also no Jewish future without the Bible. That’s the first and highest foundation on which we stand. Now, it’s not as if nobody’s trying to smash this foundation. All kinds of people are trying to do so, but with God’s help, we can say we’re standing firm.” These words were not spoken by a Jew hiding from the Romans, the Greeks or the Spanish Inquisition. They came from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a Bible study held in his official residence in Jerusalem last week.

Who are these people who are “trying to smash this foundation”? A gang from Women of the Wall that snuck over the border and joined Islamic State? Does Netanyahu truly believe there is a plot to wipe out the Book of Books? The answer is no.

Netanyahu doesn’t particularly care about the Bible, but like the imams he accuses of fomenting incitement in their sermons, he knows it’s easier to drum up recruits for a religious war, even among the secular. In religion there’s black and white, good against evil, and that’s a much easier sell than any struggle over complex ideas.

As we all know, Netanyahu likes to think of himself as the prime minister of the entire Jewish people. So he lets himself talk about Jewish survival and the Jewish future, to sound the alarm about “people who are trying to smash” and in the same breath to reassure us that “we’re standing firm” — with God’s help, of course.

Is this part of a move to increase religion in the public sphere? No. To Netanyahu and to the right in general, the Bible is basically seen as a combination property deed and writ of absolution: It all belongs to us, it always has, and therefore we have the right to do as we please. In fact, this is the main use that Israeli public schools makes of Judaism.

As Prof. Moshe Halbertal has noted, no matter how despicable the deed, a Bible verse will always be found to justify it. But meanwhile, secular and leftist parents, who are currently poring over their children’s textbooks in search of prayers that have infiltrated math exercises, are more afraid of some imaginary plot to turn their kids religious and are ignoring what’s right in front of their faces: an organized effort to introduce right-wing political messages.

The index of schools with values, created when Gideon Sa’ar was education minister, was intended to financially reward schools that excelled in conveying certain “values,”especially military or civilian national service. In other words, enlisting is not only a duty but a “value,” and it goes hand-in-hand with a religious-Zionist outlook. Most of the educational institutions receiving this reward are indeed state religious high schools. The mishmash of religion and military missions doesn’t stop in high school. It only deepens during military service, with the help of rabbis and organizations with a very specific political outlook.

Religion is only the hammer with which the sole truth is pounded into the heads of high school students and soldiers — the holiness of the mission, that is, military rule over the Palestinians. If somebody decides to start wearing a kippa, that’s a bonus, but that’s not the real goal. If it were really about religion, the students and soldiers would be shown other aspects of it that don’t automatically support the occupation and justify that support with a divine imperative.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett is right: It’s not about increasing religiosity, it’s about nationalization, and sanctification of the army. Ultimately, the right doesn’t really care if our kids observe Shabbat, as long as they do guard duty on Shabbat. These are the things that need to be excised from the schoolbooks, not the prayers that are turning up in different places.