Opinion |

Wanted: A Secular Party for Israel

Such a political party would look after its constituents by securing state funding, using the impressive — yes, impressive — tactics taught to us by our ultra-Orthodox mentors

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Secular activists hold a protest in Jerusalem.
Secular activists hold a protest in Jerusalem. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Peace is in no danger of breaking out soon, it would seem. In the meantime, in order not to bum everybody out — despite the media’s tendency to do just that, going by the prime minister — it would be astute to take advantage of the time to send out hopeful messages.

How, exactly? The fact that a final arrangement with the Palestinians is no longer even in the realm of nightmares precludes the endless, exhausting argument between the left and right on the issue. Ditto for the dispute over the character of the state: Jewish or democratic. Israel is a Jewish state with a secular minority, the majority of whose members hold democratic beliefs. This majority faces an existential threat. While the early Zionist movement nationalized Judaism, today’s Zionism is Judaizing nationalism. To this development we can add Israel’s fragmentation into ethnic groups, a process that is orchestrated at the highest levels and that serves the ruling Likud party.

There is, however, something else that secular Israelis could do to better their situation. As a defined social group, they share common interests: the desire for social and cultural activities and for Western-style secular education, with liberal and humanist values, as well as the need for appropriate legislation and state funding. I am not speaking about being anti-religion, just the opposite in fact. Secular liberalism is based on the idea of “to each his own faith.” The time has come for this minority, whose members live not only in Tel Aviv but throughout the country, including in more than a few settlements, to learn from the niche parties of the ultra-Orthodox.

What we need is a civil-minded secular party, without a foreign-policy agenda, comprised of otherwise heterogenous groups whose common denominator is secularism. The party’s goal would be to join the government and look after its constituents by securing state funding, using the impressive — yes, impressive — tactics taught to us by our Haredi mentors. These appropriations would be used to establish a Western secular way of life, for example by creating schools predicated on secular values.

The party would demand funding and educational autonomy similar to that enjoyed by the ultra-Orthodox or religious Zionist school systems. If they are permitted to educate their children in accordance with Jewish mythology, then secular Israelis have the right to educate their own children according to scientific rationalism and enlightened Western values. The Bible will be taught in these schools, but as a foundational text of the culture rather than as a user’s guide.

The secular party will secure state funding for public transportation on Shabbat in communities with a secular majority. It will fight for the right of businesses and places of recreation in these localities to open on Shabbat and for the right to civil marriage and divorce.

One could argue that such a party is anti-ideological, but secularism is a value in itself. There is a need to eliminate the left-right dichotomy and to create new connections that go beyond the division, a relic from the age of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, between the “peace camp” and the “national-religious right.” Secularism — Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Jewish, Arab — is the basis for this connection. We have an absurd situation in which parties that supposedly represent the secular public are narrow-interest parties (such as Meretz, which is an Ashkenazi niche party without admitting as much) or post-ideological parties (Zionist Union, Yesh Atid, Kulanu and, to a certain extent, Likud). The only thing needed to bring about this change is a cunning and charismatic leader, preferably female, who will take up the gauntlet.