Opinion

With Religious Influence a Key Issue in Israel's Election, Everybody Wins

It's become the center-left’s most effective issue, an emotional one like hatred for Netanyahu. And it's a godsend, so to speak, for Lieberman

A Yisrael Beiteinu campaign poster featuring Avigdor Lieberman with the slogan: "Both right-wing and secular."
Emil Salman

It’s ironic how people who raise children in one of the world’s most daunting coastal strips, in the shadow of Hezbollah missiles, don’t sleep at night because they’re afraid of creeping religiosity, of all things. One could think of other threats, almost as horrifying as the war brewing with Iran, like for example the deepening crisis in democracy or the waves of savage populism, which aren’t necessarily related to religious zealotry, as demonstrated by characters like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.

These, fueled by dubious technological achievements like gathering endless private intel and echoing every bit of nonsense on social media, are indeed threatening to turn reality into some dystopia, which is an extremely popular television genre today, reflecting the collective liberal anxiety.

But the center-left camp in Israel is now preoccupied with deep fear of a halakhic state, which most Israelis, including right-wingers, don’t really want. The Democratic Union’s and Kahol Lavan’s campaigns, which are a reflection of polls and mood gauging, attest to this.

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Religionization has become the camp’s most effective issue this election, raising emotions almost as intense as the hatred for Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s so effective that the right is using it as well; Avigdor Lieberman, who didn’t want the military draft law as much as he wanted Netanyahu’s head, used it to reinvent himself. The message of secularism succeeded for him where the loyalty tests and death penalty for terrorists failed.

The secular public isn’t the only one celebrating at this party. Some on the other side who have also recognized its potential and are squeezing the lemon. United Torah Judaism published a clip called “a tale of three balloons,” denouncing Yair Lapid and Lieberman as usual, and mocking Benny Gantz’s feebleness.

Yesterday, at Channel 12’s Influencers Conference, Yaakov Litzman called Lapid “a disease.” Shas, for its part, released a clip showing a religious couple sitting at an empty table, because in Lieberman and Lapid’s secular state their children are doing all kinds of other things on Shabbat, like reveling in a street party and taking out a passport at the Interior Ministry. The Haredim also know how to fall upon their voters’ jittery nerve centers. In short, everybody wins.

The growing dread over the spread of religion is a little peculiar in this country. A full, genuine experience of secularism still is rare among both Jews and Arabs between the sea and the Jordan River. It’s a regrettable fact, but one that secular people live with and will continue to live with in peace.

In education, the main source of recent hysterics, God has always been an honorary part of the curriculum and values. After the National Religious Party’s Zevulun Hammer became education minister in Yitzhak Shamir’s government in the 1990s, I remember the addition of one lesson in the weekly schedule at the state school I was attending: the prayer book. This hour was even more unnecessary than the other wretched hours we spent in school, but I don’t remember it turning any of my school friends more or less religious. The attitude to religion, in childhood and adulthood, is usually determined by the parents’ attitude to it.

The dread of the rise of religion is effective as long as it is seen in the proper proportion and treated as a tool to mobilize the general public to go to war against movements like Kahanist religious nationalism or the Temple Mount pyromaniacs, in a bid to return them to their natural shrunken size. When one is tempted to see religionization as a major threat, it not only distracts from the real problems we should be dealing with, but overflows into hatred of the other, into typical liberal condescension and cultural and class separatism, which winnows from the left people who are not wealthy, secular Ashkenazim. Not only is this process ineffective – it also runs contrary to liberal and humane values.