Israel, on the Road to a Theocracy

We are facing a major assault on Israel’s democratic-secular identity, with an unholy alliance between nationalism and religion at its core.

A grou pf Jews of all ages read from the Torah as they observe Tisha B’Av in Jerusalem, July 2015.
Ilan Assayag

A longtime friend told me this week about a call he made to the principal of his young son’s elementary school. He asked how it was possible that at an institution that defines itself as science- and technology-oriented, the boy was coming home laden with homework on Torah rather than math.

Of course, this matter can’t end with the principal or in second grade. The comprehensive Haaretz investigation on changes being made by Education Minister Naftali Bennett to the educational system and curriculum are surreptitiously passing us by. And then there’s the new coalition deal between Bennett’s party, Habayit Hayehudi, and the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism.

The Education Ministry will be transferring one billion shekels (about $257 million) to ultra-Orthodox educational institutions, in return for an allocation of hundreds of millions to the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization and local authorities in West Bank settlements.

We are facing a major assault on Israel’s democratic-secular identity. The attack on secularism is by necessity an attack on democracy. The ultimate source of authority is no longer the state and its institutions. The sources of inspiration are not liberal humanism, human rights, the enlightenment movement and science. They are supplanted by a higher power, holy men, the metaphysics of an Eternal Israel, holy scriptures, rituals and prayer. As part of road safety lessons, children of Israel are learning the Traveler’s Prayer.

This assault has a clear political context, of course. At its core is an alliance between nationalism and religion. Its goal is to ensure a vision of a Greater Land of Israel and the perpetuation of ignorance – on the road to a theocracy.

Everything is connected, including the string of appointments to top positions. The sole nominee for attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit, was not initially religious but became observant. The incoming chief of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, was a student of Rabbi Haim Druckman’s at the Or Etzion yeshiva. Yoram Cohen, the head of the Shin Bet security service, is religious and a graduate of a yeshiva educational institution. His former deputy, Roni Alsheich – the new Israel Police chief – was a student at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem.

They might all be worthy appointments, and heaven forbid that we disqualify anyone from public office due to private beliefs. But the problem in Israel is that religion is not separate from government, and over the years it has also become less and less separate from right-wing West Bank settler politics.

Supreme Court Justice Noam Sohlberg, a settler who wears a skullcap, determined that counterterrorism laws should not apply to Jewish terrorists in the territories, since there is no need to deter that particular group. That’s no longer a legal-security concept, but rather a theory of the chosen people.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has surrounded himself with officeholders from religious Zionism, is a man who does not believe in God. Netanyahu is motivated solely by utilitarian considerations. In the assault on secularism, he is joined by innocents, those professing innocence and useful idiots. Some have cynical interests, while others have good intentions.

Beginning with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid – who dons a prayer shawl and has his wife conduct the ritual involving setting aside a portion of the Shabbat challah – it includes an endless number of public projects and campaigns involving dialogue and returning to our sources and bringing us together. But the effort to bring us closer is only ever in one direction.

Nearly 20 years have passed since Sefi Rachlevsky revealed the concept of “the Messiah’s donkey” to the broader secular public. The subject has recently been revived in the Makor Rishon newspaper by Rabbi Moshe Ratt, from the Karnei Shomron settlement: “The role of secularism was necessary at the stage in which religious Jewry could not run the country and the army. Today, it can be said that secularism has concluded its historical role,” he wrote. It turns out that a donkey, even when it’s older, is still a donkey.