Opinion |

Why Nationalist and Jewish Orthodoxy Are Taking Over Israel

Israel has indeed brought forth a rich and vibrant secular culture, but for most people this isn't enough to sustain their need for meaning.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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A man draped in an Israeli flag walks along King George Street in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, Sept. 23, 2015.
A man draped in an Israeli flag walks along King George Street in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, Sept. 23, 2015.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

An interesting debate has been taking place in Haaretz on “what has gone wrong with secularism” and “why is Israel becoming more religious?” The trigger is largely Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s transformation of the national education system into a clone of the religious-Zionist system, replacing civics with Jewish indoctrination and introducing ever more religious Jewish content.

Two interesting answers have been offered on why secularism is becoming less interesting for Israelis. Rami Livni has argued that secularism is committing suicide mainly because “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.”

As opposed to this, Shlomo Avineri has argued that Israeli secularism's failure stems from its emptiness; it has retreated to highly specific issues like women’s and gay rights, and women’s right to pray at the Western Wall. Avineri claims that only a return to Labor Zionism’s reinterpretation of Jewishness as social justice, equality and solidarity can stop the dwindling attractiveness of Israeli secularism.

I disagree with both Livni and Avineri, and let me start with the latter. Israel’s left has tried for decades to win elections by deemphasizing security and emphasizing social justice, equality and solidarity, but this has largely failed for the last 40 years, particularly when it was led by leaders with a strong social agenda like Amir Peretz and Shelly Yacimovich.

In a conflict zone like Israel, the right focuses the political agenda on security and national identity, and no amount of social-democratic emphasis can change this. Even the social-justice protests of 2011 have hardly made a dent in Israel’s march toward the religious-Zionist revival, hence Avineri’s idea simply does not fit historical facts.

Livni’s emphasis on the miraculous Israeli secular culture from Lea Goldberg to Arik Einstein is attractive, but it fails for a reason that brings us to the crux of the matter: Israel has indeed brought forth a rich and vibrant secular culture, but for most Israelis this is not enough to sustain their identity and need for meaning.

There is a deep cause for this development. Empirical research in existential psychology has shown that humans have a tremendous need to connect their identity to cultural and religious traditions that have historical depth. We all fear death, and we all want to belong to something larger than ourselves that promises immortality. This is religion’s enormous strength, reflected in the fact that about 85 percent of humanity continues to adhere to some form of religion.

The need for the promise of immortality increases even more when humans feel threatened in their survival and reminded of their mortality. Unfortunately, Israel is located in one of the globe’s most unstable and violent regions, and Israelis constantly feel under threat. As a consequence, the young Israeli-Hebrew culture does not provide enough psychological protection and Judaism becomes ever more attractive for Israelis.

Israelis are embracing religion because, as political scientist Uriel Abulof has shown using existential psychology, Israelis feel deeply insecure, and because they have doubts about the Zionist project succeeding in the long run. Hence they want to connect to 3,000 years of Jewish history and the biblical promise that Abraham’s offspring will live forever – that the Messiah will come and the world will recognize the Jews as the Chosen People.

Livni also doesn’t realize that while Western liberal secularism is indeed a powerful value system that has transformed the Western world in the last three centuries, it is generally antinationalist and has always been universalist and cosmopolitan. Enlightenment culture that brought forth liberal secularism has evolved in a network spanning all of Europe for centuries and then also the United States.

Liberal secularism can therefore not be specifically Israeli. While Jews like Marx, Freud and Einstein have made a remarkable contribution to world culture, and Israel’s scientific and cultural achievements are remarkable, modernity would not exist without Da Vinci, Galileo, Newton, Kant, Darwin and Picasso, none of whom are Jewish.

This is why Israel’s secular liberals emphasize universal human rights. As a result, the nationalist and religious political right calls us unpatriotic, and the term “cosmopolitan” is used as an insult that implies that secular liberals “have no values” because we don’t uncritically accept Jewish tradition and rabbinical authority, and refuse to see Jews as the Chosen People.

I am therefore afraid that neither Avineri’s return to Labor Zionism nor Livni’s call to celebrate Israel’s secular culture will bring Israelis back to liberal secularism, which neither provides religious solace nor promises immortality. Israel’s secular liberals must realize that we are a minority, that our cosmopolitan enlightenment ideals do not satisfy the needs of most Israelis, and that we are unlikely to shape Israel’s dominant culture and political identity in the foreseeable future.

Our only choice is to defend the basic tenets of Israel’s liberal democracy, to carve out a space where we can live according to our own ideals and values, and to realize that liberal Zionism has lost the battle for Israel’s soul against religious-Zionist ideology.

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