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Israeli Secularism Isn't Hollow When It's Steeped in History and Culture

It's no coincidence that the father of modern Jewish historiography opens his key work with Joshua, not Abraham. This is the history of a nation, even if the religion was destined to become a major element.

Shlomo Avineri
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A secular and an ultra-Orthodox Jew.
A secular and an ultra-Orthodox Jew.Credit: Leo Atelman
Shlomo Avineri

Dr. Ram Fruman and Prof. Yigal Elam examined the secular worldview’s historical roots and significance to Israeli politics in two important articles published in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition (January 9 and January 24). I agree with most of what they said but an essential element is missing and is the basis for our disagreement.

Fruman correctly stressed the historical connection between Zionism and the Jewish Enlightenment movement in Eastern and Central Europe, the Haskalah, but the picture he drew is incomplete. He characterized the Enlightenment as having sought to “open up to the wide non-Jewish world a turn toward the modern and rationalism liberation from the yoke of commandments and the belief in God.”

All this is true, but it’s incomplete. Opening up to the world wasn’t abstract, it was anchored in a deep connection to Jewish history and cultural tradition. The movement’s adherents – the Maskilim, or as Fruman calls them, freethinkers – didn’t only want to be citizens of the world, they also embraced the slogan “be a Jew at home and a human being [adam] in the street.”

Precisely because they rejected religion and its precepts, they didn’t deny their Jewish identity but sought to reshape it as a modern and cultural identity. They understood correctly that it’s impossible to be a “man” without being rooted in a specific national culture. They weren’t familiar with the thinking of the liberal Italian (and European) prophet of nationalism, Giuseppe Mazzini – who said “the way to being a citizen of the world is by being a citizen of my nation and my homeland” – but they spoke his language.

That was the Jewish Enlightenment’s message of revival, and from there the path led ultimately to Zionism. The Maskilim didn’t talk about returning to the Land of Israel, but the Enlightenment led in the 19th century to the turn toward the Hebrew language. The Maskilim sought to renew the use of Hebrew not as a holy tongue or the language of prayer, but as a means to craft a secular national Jewish consciousness.

The Enlightenment wasn’t hollow, because it saw itself as umbilically connected to the culture of the Jewish people in its various incarnations. From this stemmed the turn toward writing in Hebrew and the beginning of modern Hebrew literature in Eastern Europe, even before Zionism – in prose, poetry, political commentary and the project of translating masterpieces of world literature into Hebrew.

From this stemmed the foundation of Hebrew journals and newspapers, which enabled the growth of a modern Jewish culture that transcended political borders. And from this stemmed the introduction of Hebrew not only as the language of sacred texts and prayers but also as a living language. It entered the traditional heder – primary school for Jewish boys – followed by the establishment of Hebrew-language schools.

Blazing the way to Zionism

Also stemming from the connection to the Jewish people was the Enlightenment’s placing of the Bible at the center of Jewish identity – not as a holy book and a catalogue of precepts, but as the expression of the spiritual and moral heritage of the Jewish people – Judaism’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.” Hence the pride in the prophetic tradition and the perception of it as expressing moral values sourced in Jewish history but universally valid and expressing a vision of improving the world.

Without this anchoring in the cultural and linguistic heritage of the Jewish people, the Enlightenment wouldn’t have been able to blaze the way to Zionism. This is the root of secular Zionism’s esteem for the Bible; these things were unambiguously manifested in the curriculum of the Hebrew-language schools in the Diaspora and in the Land of Israel, and they are reflected in the lofty opening sentences of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

This impression made by the Enlightenment can be seen in the writings of Nachman Krochmal, who in his 1851 book “Guide for the Perplexed of the Time” adopted German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder’s concept of the “spirit of the nation” not as something mystical and ahistorical but rather as the total of historical characteristics of every nation, and therefore also of the Jewish people.

The execution of Robespierre. French secularism too is no stranger to the country’s history and heritage.Credit: Archive

Parallel to this, it’s no coincidence that Heinrich Graetz, the father of modern Jewish historiography, opens his monumental book “The History of the Jewish People” (c. 1891) not with Abraham, not with the Exodus from Egypt, not with the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, but with the conquest of the land by Joshua. This is the history of a nation, not of a religion, even if the religion was destined to become an element of the nation over the generations.

Fruman doesn’t mention any of this. The phrase “Jewish people” is entirely absent from his article and therefore the secularism he proposes is abstract and ultimately hollow. He avoids discussing anything Jewish due to a tendency among many secular Israelis to identify the concept “Jewish” with a religious outlook. In this way they play into the hands of the religious community, which seeks a monopoly over everything linked to the concept. Education Minister Naftali Bennett and his cohorts owe profound gratitude to Fruman and his approach.

Even though Fruman does not rebut what he calls communitarianism and solidarity (though he does not say what they are based on), he places at the center of his secular worldview “globalism, individualism and even modern capitalism.” Setting aside modern capitalism (and its crises) for the moment, these are lofty aims, but they are abstract and hollow because they are not anchored in a concrete consciousness of identity. It’s not easy to win an election in the name of globalism when confronting viewpoints of religious identity and truculent nationalism.

The French model

France is the birthplace of the Enlightenment and secularism, but the secular French person today, however attached to the universalism of the secular message, is no stranger to French history, the French language and even the Gothic cathedrals in which he sees expressions of the French nation. In the same way he sees Joan of Arc – a religious fanatic who teetered on the fringes of sanity – as the harbinger of the same French patriotism that led to the French Revolution and sovereignty of the people.

Though this is a circuitous path, it’s not alien to the secular French narrative. Therefore French secularism isn’t hollow but is anchored in meaningful historical and cultural awareness. This awareness isn’t imprisoned in the shackles of a history rewritten in every generation, but it’s no stranger to the country’s history and heritage.

As long as these dimensions are missing from the message of Israeli secularism, it will remain hollow and its connection to the Jewish Enlightenment will to a large extent be a false representation. In addition, this message will not be able to break through to wider segments of the population. Moreover, if its aims are “globalism, individualism and even modern capitalism,” all these goals can be achieved in Berlin and New York as well.

Meanwhile, I think Elam’s article ignores another aspect. In a convincing and clear way he explains the significance of an individual’s decision vis-à-vis religious demands to accept the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. But like many other secular people who have thought that the spread of the Enlightenment would make religion disappear, he errs in understanding the social power of religion.

Contrary to the opinions of intellectuals who have good arguments against faith in God, many of those who cling to religion (in Israel and elsewhere) do this not because they are certain about the correctness of the theological and metaphysical arguments concerning divinity, but because religion affords them a concrete framework for their self-identity and sense of security as human beings.

In other words, religion isn’t only a matter of faith in the creator of the universe, it’s above all a focus of identity. Anyone who doesn’t understand this will not understand why, despite all the achievements of progressiveness and enlightenment, religion isn’t disappearing from the world. Many secular intellectuals think that anyone who believes in God and religion is stupid and benighted. This is a cognitive error that exudes a whiff of arrogance, which the religious right exploits very well.