The Jewish Coercion Administration

Zionism dreamed of a state for the Jews, not a Jewish state; the Balfour Declaration promised a national home, not a religious one.

Haaretz Editorial
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Haaretz Editorial

The fresh breeze of a new kind of politics ostensibly blew in with the recent Knesset election. Two relatively young politicians, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, who head parties that together account for around one-quarter of all Knesset members, charmed the electorate by presenting themselves as the face of a new generation. But these feelings are being proved false and illusory at a dizzying pace.

Lapid, as evidenced by the platform vis-a-vis the Palestinians he is now revealing in interviews with the foreign media, is actually quite close to the party led by Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, and brings us no new hope with regard to the conflict. Bennett, who took over the leadership of a veteran religious party thanks to his up-to-date style and his background as a combat officer and high-tech entrepreneur, is also demonstrating a tendency toward conservatism that borders on the reactionary.

On Tuesday, Yair Ettinger reported in Haaretz that Bennett, the economy minister who is also the minister of religious services, is establishing a new Jewish Identity Administration whose job will be to instill "Jewish values" in the public. The agency will be headed by chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces from 2006-2010, Brig. Gen. (res. ) Avichai Rontzki. As the chaplain general, Rontzki set up a "Jewish awareness" program in the army. Now, under Bennett's auspices, and thanks to the budget from which Lapid is torturously engaged in cutting other apparently less essential items, all Israelis will be able to benefit from the rabbi-general's activities.

Zionism dreamed of a state for the Jews, not a Jewish state: a refuge for members of the Jewish people, not a state with an official religion like Muslim Saudi Arabia. The Balfour Declaration promised a national home, not a religious one. On Israeli identity cards, "Jewish" describes a nationality.

It's no accident that Israel, after having been burned by its fights with many of its American supporters, has refrained from pursuing the dispute over who is a Jew and which Jewish movements qualify. The government and all its agencies, from the army to the Religious Services Ministry, must not force any one religion, religious movement or interpretation of "Jewish identity" on its citizens.

In recent years, a worrying trend has taken root in the education system and the IDF, in which encounters with religious content are being forced on secular youth. But not, of course, the reverse: Boys and girls from Bnei Brak and Mea She'arim aren't being systematically bused to north Tel Aviv and to kibbutzim.

Israelis don't have an identity crisis, and they certainly don't need Bennett and Rontzki to treat it for them. Rontzki should be returned to his settlement, which was established on occupied territory, presumably as an expression of Jewish identity. The new administration should be dismantled. And the unnecessary Religious Services Ministry should confine itself to providing these services to members of any religion who need them.

Rabbi Avichai Rontzki. Credit: Tali Mayer

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