A friend who watched the excellent new documentary “Ben-Gurion, Epilogue” noted afterward how in all the archive footage of the first prime minister’s political career, in the years he was building the state, you can’t spot anyone around him wearing a kippa. How different from today, when religious men are so ubiquitous in the upper echelons of the country’s leadership.
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There’s no doubt the foundation of Israel was a fundamentally secular enterprise. David Ben-Gurion and his colleagues even fought off requests from the small religious parties in the temporary government to mention God in the Declaration of Independence, settling instead for the ambiguous “Placing our trust in the ‘rock of Israel’” in the final paragraph. Independence would not be an act of God.
Many religious Israelis are still disturbed by the overt secularity of the state’s foundation. In recent years there has been an attempt, on the far margins of the religious right, to redefine the history of Jewish statehood. No matter how right wing most Israeli governments have been in the last few decades, the pullbacks from Sinai, Gaza and small parts of the West Bank have given birth to a new religious-Zionist sect that sees the secular Zionist founders of the state as heretics. However, unlike the hardcore Neturei Karta group – the tiny, remaining minority of ultra-Orthodoxy that still abominates the Jewish state and prays for its downfall – this new sect believes in Jewish statehood in our age. They have been forced to search for other sources of inspiration.
Meir Ettinger, 25, is widely known as the leader of a new generation of Jewish zealots living on the West Bank hilltops, some of whom have carried out violent attacks against their Palestinian neighbors and property. On Thursday, he tweeted the hilula (anniversary of a famed rabbi’s death) of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, “leader of the first (real) aliyah to Eretz Yisrael 240 years ago,” adding that “Zionism joined 100 years later.”
Ettinger and his friends and rabbis believe in a different version of the Jewish return to their homeland. For them, the true founders were not the secular Russian pioneers like Ben-Gurion who began arriving at the end of the 19th century, but the first wave of followers of the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Hasidism), who arrived in 1777. And then the disciples of the Vilna Gaon, who began arriving in small groups in 1808, led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov.
While historians argue over whether their motivation was messianic – an attempt to bring about divine redemption – or simply a religious belief that a Jew’s place is in the Holy Land, there is no historical argument as to their achievements.
While the few hundred Hasidim and mitnagdim who arrived in the sleepy Ottoman province bolstered the small communities of mainly Sephardi Jews living in the ancient “Holy Cities” of Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias and Hebron, and who at the time together numbered only a few thousand, they didn’t lay down the foundations of a state.
Some of their descendants would go on to establish the tiny settlements of what are today cities like Petah Tikva and Rosh Pina. But the new arrivals would also eventually become the “old Yishuv” of Jerusalem, which was adamantly opposed to Jewish statehood.
Ethno-nationalists who today seek to transform the Menachem Mendels of Vitebsk and Shklov into founding fathers are not only giving them credit for something they never achieved, or even aspired to. They are also warping their religious beliefs. They didn’t see themselves as a conquering elite, intent on pushing out their neighbors and making way for Jewish settlement. They were humble students and ascetic mystics, devoted to a life of learning.
But the yearning on the extreme religious right for father figures who sacrificed their lives, without sacrificing their belief in God, is telling. Even in today’s Israel, where religion and belief are so much more commonplace in public life than in Ben-Gurion’s day, the ethos of secular statehood is so strong and threatening that there are those who seek to replace it by creating a totally alternative, and false, narrative.
For 70 years, Jews have been asking “Where was God?” during the Holocaust. No one ever asks “Where was God?” when Israel was fighting for independence three years later.
Haredi theology blames the murder of millions of Jews in Europe on our multiple sins; on our forsaking belief, tradition and Torah for the temptations of assimilation, for godless materialism, socialism and Zionism. But how then to explain God allowing those same heretical Zionists who wouldn’t learn their lesson from the Holocaust to defy the odds and establish a flourishing state in his own land?
There is no necessary contradiction between Zionism and the Jewish faith. On Monday night, hundreds of thousands of religious Jews will begin the 70th year of Israel’s independence in synagogues, saying the Hallel, like on other ancient Jewish festivals. The Prayer for the Peace of the State, written in 1948 by Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog – and, to my mind, the most beautiful piece of modern Hebrew liturgy – opens with an ironic allusion to the Declaration of Independence: “Our father in heaven, the rock of Israel and its redeemer.” Herzog, a fervent religious Zionist, believed that the foundation of Israel was a display of divine redemption, even though he knew it was essentially a godless, secular state.
For all the talk of the rise of the rabbis and religion in today’s Israel, the vast majority of religious Israelis are no different to Ben-Gurion, who gave up on God in his early teens. They recognize the supremacy of the secular state he founded. That is why, save for a tiny minority, nearly all the Haredim today pay taxes and vote in elections, and are joining the army in increasing numbers. They have grudgingly accepted that a secular state works, which is why they backed down a few months ago when the government carried out major infrastructure work on Shabbat.
It’s also why every time an Israeli government has ordered the eviction of settlements, the number of religious settlers barricading themselves inside has been far outnumbered by the religious soldiers and police officers carrying out orders and dragging them away. God isn’t in the chain of command, and they know Israel is better off for it.
And despite the fears that an army with a growing proportion of kippa-wearing commanders will refuse in the future to evict West Bank settlements, I have no doubt the overwhelming majority will do so once again.
Ben-Gurion and the other founders knew what they were doing when they kept God out back in 1948. For all its many faults, Israel today is a functioning state and democracy – albeit only within the pre-1967 borders – because it has remained godless. That’s one thing we can still give thanks for on Independence Day.