Israel Has Become a State of Snake-handlers

It's time for rational Israel to stand up and jettison toxic fairy tales like 'Torah study protects Israel.'

Roy Isacowitz
Roy Isacowitz
Roy Isacowitz
Roy Isacowitz

Hundreds of thousands – some reports say up to half-a-million – ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered in Jerusalem on Sunday in support of the proposition that Torah study protects Israel and those indulging in it should be regarded as providing a vital service to the nation. In other words, that yeshiva students perform a function similar to that of combat soldiers and should not be compelled to do military service as well; some conscripts are recruited by the army and others by God.

The beauty of the proposition that Torah study protects Israel is that it’s unprovable. Those who propose it are as unable to prove it right as I am to prove it wrong. Not only that, but once you subscribe to it, it’s infallible. Disasters are always due to insufficient Torah study, while the dangers it protects us from never materialize and therefore remain unknown. After all, we’re still here, aren’t we?

Were it not for the concern that the ultra-Orthodox are not “sharing the burden” (in itself a problematic proposition,) it would be easy to dismiss them as medieval relics who, thankfully, keep to their ghettoes mostly. But the real danger is their way of thinking – their conviction that the ineffable is also the real – which is already deeply ingrained in Israeli society. Far too many supposedly sane and rational Israelis either share that conviction to some degree or are unwilling to publicly call the emperor naked.

The Haredim trot out their ‘Torah study protects Israel’ drivel on TV and Finance Minister Yair Lapid counters with arguments about how the economy can’t sustain such a large group of people who neither serve nor work. Which may well be the case, but it’s not the point.

The point is that the Torah study argument is nonsense and we, rather than pointing out that it’s nonsense, accept it silently. Rather than counter it, we blunder on rationally, leaving the irrationality unexposed. And, in that way, sanctimonious and deceitful rubbish becomes part of our national consciousness; we begin to take it for granted. It becomes a supporting myth.

Zionist history is full of such myths, unprovable – and often outlandish – propositions that become part of the common wisdom because no-one bothers to contradict them when they are raised. They serve political purposes and most of the time we are quick to jettison truth and common sense in pursuit of our goals.

"God gave the land to the Jews" is one such myth and the "2,000-year exile" is another. The first relies on writings of unknown provenance and negligible historical accuracy and the second has no basis in history. They were both reborn as fact in the late 19th century, in order to provide a pseudo-historical foundation for the colonization of Palestine.

There are more contemporary myths as well: such as that the Jordan Valley is critical for the defense of Israel (refuted by men with impeccable security backgrounds, such as Meir Dagan,) or that the Palestinians want to push the Jews into the sea or that the IDF is a moral army – all flying in the face of reality and all accepted as foundational truths by the bulk of Israelis, secular as well as religious.

Which is why the Education Ministry has become a propaganda tool, rabbis are now involved in running the army and the Bennetts of this world find it necessary to establish public organizations dedicated to maintaining Jewish identity. The lies we have told over generations need to be fortified and sustained, because, were the truth to be told, the whole edifice could crumble.

Secretary Kerry isn’t after the truth; he just wants us to ease up on the myths a little. To accept 70% of the land promised by God instead of the whole lot; to rely on missile defenses to secure Israel’s eastern flank in the high-tech age, rather than settlements in the Jordan Valley. But even that is too much for the merry band of myth-sustainers in the Knesset, who found it necessary last week to both insult the American ambassador and belittle American support for Israel, which is one of the few concrete realities in our world today.

It all brings to mind a recent article about a Pentecostal preacher in the southern United States who died recently from a snakebite after conducting a religious service featuring “snake handling .” Pastor Jamie Coots died because he believed Scripture commanded him to “take up serpents” in church and then refuse medical assistance once he had been bitten. He paid for that belief with his life.

Most of us, I think, would find the pastor’s behavior unfathomable. How on earth does getting bitten by a snake prove one’s belief and devotion? But, in fact, there’s little difference between taking an obscure line about serpents in the New Testament at face value and believing that Torah study protects Israel – or that God gave the land to the Jews.

They are all unfounded and unprovable propositions that rest entirely on belief and are at odds with the science-based approach of the modern world. For all its sophistication and high-tech élan, Israel is no less backward than the Kentucky backwoods in which Jamie Coots operated. Most of us, secular as well as religious, are more than happy to believe the fairy tales we have been fed since birth.

Jamie Coots at Jesus Name Church, Middlesboro, before his untimely demise of snakebite.Credit: AP
Ultra-Orthodox protesters in central Jerusalem. February 3, 2014.Credit: Gil Cohen Magen

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