Why Ask MKs About God, of All Things?

Of all the questions that remain unanswered by Israel’s Knesset members, is belief in God really the most important?

Revital Madar
Revital Madar
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The Knesset building in Jerusalem: Construction began in 1958, ten years after Israel's establishment, until which time the parliament had simply migrated.
The Knesset in Jerusalem.Credit: Daniel Baron
Revital Madar
Revital Madar

Israel is an apolitical country. On one hand, it’s preoccupied with political disputes day and night, yet on the other, the poverty of its understanding of politics is glaring. Politics has replaced the political, and focusing on the former isn’t much different than thinking the appearance of the latest iPhone is a historic event. So it’s not surprising that the one question Haaretz chose to ask all Knesset members was “Do you believe in God?”

What significance does this question have in the Israel of 2016? In the view of reporters Netta Ahituv and Doron Halutz, the answer to this question attests to political changes that have occurred in Israel since 1996, when Haaretz first posed it to MKs. In fact, the answer to the question says less about the respondent than the question itself says about the person asking it. Who asks such questions in 2016?

First, someone who doesn’t understand that belief in God is a private issue, who confuses the public realm with the private one and who lacks basic good manners.

This misunderstanding, and the chutzpah of asking such an intimate question in public, even threatening to publish it, isn’t so different from the Inquisition, which went over both men and women with a fine-tooth comb. The only difference is that this latest invasion of privacy was perpetrated in the name of enlightenment.

By the same token, the MKs could have been asked about their favorite position in bed. The reason is simple: Just as political positions cannot be deduced from a person’s sexual proclivities, they cannot be deduced from a person’s belief in God.

Belief in God, unlike political positions, reveals no political nakedness. As evidence, consider the religious feminists who fight to change rabbinical law on divorce proceedings, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community who believe in God and even, heaven help us, those men and women who support a binational state, not to mention one Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who objected vehemently to any connection between religion and state and was both a dedicated scientist and a religious man.

Anyone who asks such a question is apparently still mired in the delusion of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment placed religion in opposition to science and turned religious belief into an object of scorn, while celebrating secularism — the same secularism that’s blowing up in the West’s face these days in the form of the extreme right, revealing that secularism can be good friends with patriarchy and fascism.

But even if we leave the present aside, plenty of thinkers — the most prominent being Nietzsche — have revealed the nakedness of the religion of science. In the 20th century, it was French philosophers who harshly critiqued the childish certainty that accompanied the Enlightenment and its pursuit of science and positivism as the indispensible truth. Instead of choosing between truths, these thinkers understood that the heart of the problem was the very term “truth” and the view of it as solitary and exclusive.

Such continued immersion in the Enlightenment and inability to internalize criticism of any claim to absolute truth, in 2016, is almost surprising, not to mention that it attests to a lack of critical faculties.

Another characteristic of people who ask such questions is a basic lack of understanding of the political. Portraying this question as fateful is nothing more than a continuation of the depoliticization that is sweeping Israel.

The idea that Israel’s problems begin and end with religious Jews on one hand and Palestinians on the other is a well-known belief that has characterized the white, Zionist left in Israel for some time. This belief makes it easier to blur the problems inherent in the very idea of Zionism, and to claim that Israel’s problem is the lack of separation between religion and state and that we, the secular Zionists, are okay.

Moreover, the thought that the answer to this question will teach us anything about today’s Israel also attests to a superficial reading of the political reality here. The strengthening of religious Zionism is a fact. Nevertheless, religion is far from being the force driving the members of this movement. Religion adds a historic dimension to Israel’s territorial bulimia. But it’s not what began the occupation and not what’s driving it now. The daily reality of the occupation was created primarily with the help of those magic words, “security reasons.”

Nietzsche, one of the harshest critics of Christianity, scorned the emphasis this religion placed on a man’s faith. That, he argued, says nothing about anything, because what’s easier than to demand faith or to claim it? By the same measure, we must ask Ahituv and Halutz whether, of all the questions that remain unanswered by our MKs, is this really the most important one?

Behind the secular ethos lie many saliently political questions to which it’s urgent to obtain unequivocal answers from our Knesset representatives. And that was also true in 1996.

Questions about dividing Jerusalem, imposing an inheritance tax, abolishing the statute of limitations on sex crimes, Israel’s divorce and marriage laws, increasing welfare payment, ending the legal presumption that mothers should get custody of young children, in the event of divorce, legislation to criminalize prostitutes’ clients and the evictions of unrecognized Bedouin villages or the neighborhoods of Givat Amal and Kfar Ha’argazim — all these are just a few of the political questions one could have posed to the MKs. Their answers to them, or their refusal to answer — and not their belief in God — are what could teach us some fundamental facts about their political positions, and also about the Israel of 2016.

Granted, many of the abovementioned issues, especially those related to women and women’s affairs, are viewed as interest-group issues in Israel. But beyond the smokescreen of tabloid politics, these are the questions that actually determine our agenda — not the question of whether a man or woman inserts slips of paper with wishes written on them into cracks in the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

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