Opinion |

Three Reasons Israelis Stopped Being Secular

Nonreligious Israelis have only themselves to blame for their country’s increasing religiosity, but they can do something about it.

Rami Livni
Rami Livni
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Two cultures come face to face in Jerusalem.
Two cultures come face to face in Jerusalem.Credit: AP
Rami Livni
Rami Livni

Rogel Alpher is shocked by the amount of religious content second-graders learn at Israeli state schools, and accuses Education Minister Naftali Bennett of spitting in secular faces.

Wrong. Bennett isn’t the address, just as there is no point blaming a cat for its healthy instincts when it licks the cream left in a dish. Settlers have a built-in political interest in weakening not only the left but also Israeli secularism as an ideological, existential and cultural option – because it is clear to them that a potential threat to their enterprise can only blossom in a secular setting. Bennett is no loser. He is selling a deal to secular Israelis in which only he is the winner: We get to bless wine and he gets the occupation. Any takers?

It is secular Israelis who are to blame, and only the secular – including here at Haaretz. This is no masochistic self-flagellation, but merely an attempt to analyze a situation honestly. This is because it isn’t the changes in secular children’s textbooks that have altered the big picture. Nor is it the desire, which has always nested in the hearts of education ministers from the National Religious Party (now known as Habayit Hayehudi) to wash, or at least dilute, children’s brains. It’s secular Israelis who have changed.

What used to irritate, inflame and drive them to revolt two decades or even a decade ago, they now greet with a nonchalant shrug, forgivingly, all in the name of openness, tolerance and, of course, “Jewish identity.”

It is doubtful whether it is possible to fill a school with the number of secular parents who are disturbed by the fact that their children are delving deeply into topics like laying tefillin (phylacteries), kashrut laws and prayers in the context of “Jewish-Israeli culture.” Veteran religious functionaries at the Education Ministry must be rubbing their eyes in disbelief: How have we been able to achieve this blessed occasion when secular folk are retreating of their own free will – and even asking for more?

Israeli secularism is committing suicide. This is not yet evident in official state statistics, where the distribution between the religious and secular sectors hasn’t changed much. But the direction is clear and decisive. It all started when left-wing parties gradually stopped dealing with issues of religion and state: these included the battle to conscript the ultra-Orthodox (Haredim) into the army; the demand for core studies in yeshivas; reducing religious budget allocations; the fight to preserve the secular nature of the non-partisan education system; the struggle for civil marriage; and public transportation on Shabbat.

Into the vacuum charged political parties representing various parts of society, including Shinui and later Yesh Atid, in a disastrous development that transformed secularism from a Zionist, national issue into a sectoral, class one. Ultimately, these parties either became extinct (Shinui) or wimped out (Yesh Atid).

And left-wing voters have lost interest in the character of their country in recent years. After all, it’s not very liberal to tie yourself in knots in order to shape a society in accordance with your own values. Their secularism has been privatized. They have moved onto dealing with “nano” problems – questions of lifestyle like alternative weddings, circumcision (yes or no), Reform prayer at the Western Wall and girls getting called up to read publicly from the Torah.

Even if some of these issues are important, what they all have in common is that they’re concerned with individuals’ desire to jettison something from their personal lives or bring something into it, to feel like they have a choice – or the illusion of a choice; to live their lives without other people deciding for them.

All of this has sucked the energy out of secularism, leaving the central arena – the constant tug of war between religion and secularism – to the presence of only one side. This image of a never-ending “tug of war” might sound aggressive and exaggerated, but it is the situation in many countries where there is tense rivalry between religion and secularism for hegemony, power bases, narratives, symbols and children’s education. Whoever pulls with greater determination and refuses to loosen their grip on the rope will bring those in the middle – who in Israel are traditional but not very observant – over to their side and win the battle. For Bennett, this is elementary.

A second reason for the decline of secularism is the phenomenon of Jewish Renewal, which has morphed from being a harmless hobby into a dangerous problem – a Trojan horse of religion and the right. In Israel, there are more Jewish Renewal organizations than there are groups for peace, the environment, disability rights and feminism.

Jewish identity has become an obsession. An outside observer would think we have gone mad. Without going into the questions of “What’s so bad about reading a page of Gemara?” and “Why isn’t there a push to break the religious and Orthodox monopoly on Judaism?” – it’s clear that secular Israelis’ pursuit of their Jewish identity expresses a tragic internalization of the insulting canard that “the secular wagon is empty and the religious wagon is full.”

This has caused an entire generation of secular Israelis to adopt the kitschy and false argument that the fathers of Zionism – who strove to establish a modern model of national Judaism without religion – robbed them of something immeasurably precious. This, they claim, caused a generation of secular children to grow up with the feeling that they are lacking something, without which there is no meaning to life for them in Israel. And who has come along to fill this void? Naftali Bennett.

Third, Israeli secularism has discarded the Israeli-Hebrew culture that was miraculously created here: from singer-songwriter Arik Einstein to poet Lea Goldberg; from performer Achinoam Nini to the children’s song cycle “The 16th Sheep”; from novelist A.B. Yehoshua to songwriter and columnist Eli Mohar; from artist and critic Raffi Lavie to Tel Aviv architecture – and these are but a few examples. Beyond its cultural value per se, this was the flak jacket that protected secularism from religion, the conclusive proof of its overflowing knapsack and attractiveness for the muddled middle and those on the margins.

Secularism offered two tickets for the price of one: You want Arik Einstein? Please help yourself, but it is worth taking the whole package, with the secularism. Hebrew culture was secular Israelis’ “Come spend Shabbat with us.” It was a tempting offer, and a strategic one. Then, on a suicidal impulse, instead of guarding it like a precious treasure and ensuring that it would always be fresh and attractive, secular Israelis turned their backs on their baggage, on their identity pack, and failed to replenish it. Or they abandoned it in favor of ethnic folklore, Yiddishkeit and piyyutim (liturgical poems) or, alternatively, cosmopolitan pretentiousness – which doesn’t work anywhere and certainly not in the Middle East, where religion is a constant challenge.

Next time you open a children’s school textbook, don’t be astonished. Secularism is a project that requires regular maintenance. And those who don’t work and don’t do the maintenance – well, they get what’s coming to them.

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