The Cultural Revolution That Tramples Israel’s Secular Heritage

Freedom of worship is supposed to let a person conduct his spiritual life as he wishes, but apparently in Israel this principle protects religious ritual only.

A Torah procession ceremony at Kibbutz Beit Alfa, October 2015.
David Einav

“I discovered the other side of coercion,” a resident of Kibbutz Eilon’s “expansion neighborhood” told Haaretz’s Noa Shpigel this week. Despite the opposition of most local people, the man wants to build a synagogue there and asks: “Can one imagine people in Israel wishing to pray with a majority deciding whether they can or not?”

In one demagogic sentence expressing victimization the speaker touches on the problem facing the kibbutzim and all liberal Israelis. They grow up on values of tolerance that demand acceptance of the other. Every day, or at least once a week when Shabbat begins, they accede to this demand.

But it’s a one-way street. The tradition and customs of those reared in secular homes are being trampled in an Israeli cultural revolution a kind of benign mini-ethnocide that merely wants to light Shabbat candles.

The question of the man at the kibbutz must be met with a firm reply. No, you can’t force a person not to pray, and that doesn’t happen anyway. He can pray at home or in a synagogue outside the secular left-wing Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz where he has decided to live. And yes, the kibbutz isn’t required to build him a house of worship, just as a kosher restaurant isn’t required to serve me pork, even if I ordered it.

The kibbutzim are trying to survive in difficult economic straits. That’s why it’s hard to judge anyone who makes the dining room kosher or builds a synagogue in an attempt to attract new people or religious tourism. Still, it would be good if the people representing the remnants of the kibbutz movement understood how they’re being manipulated.

The synagogue at Kibbutz Yifat in northern Israel.
Gil Eliahu

Secular people are giving up their nature reserves but are receiving nothing in return. The school system is investing more and more in religious education, public transportation still doesn’t run on Shabbat, anyone who wants to marry without a rabbi is sent abroad, and during Passover I wanted to make pizza, but even in a grocery store in the heart of Tel Aviv I couldn’t buy flour – due to the fines imposed by the state.

Freedom of worship is supposed to let a person conduct his spiritual life as he wishes, but apparently in Israel this principle protects religious ritual only. If your ritual is to refrain from religion, you have a problem. If your tradition is not to observe the tradition, it’s easy to trample. If your culture is to refrain from doing, it’s easy to force you to do, because “what do you really care anyway?”

That’s how it happened that in the elementary school I attended it’s now customary to conduct a ceremony giving a Torah scroll to second graders. That’s how it happened that through a crazy distortion and in the name of tolerance (!), men and women are separated in the swimming pool of Hashomer Hatzair’s first kibbutz, Beit Alfa.

But beneath the surface the motivation for these steps isn’t tolerance but the total opposite: disdain for the lifestyle of Israel’s secular Jews, who over the years have acquired a reputation of the bad kid in class – the one who needs a scolding and then a kind word to put him back on track.

Secular Jewish culture isn’t a sign of bad behavior; it’s not a fit of temper or youthful rebellion. It’s the heritage of many Israelis. And as everyone knows, a heritage must be preserved.