Opinion |

How Judaism Became a Dirty Word in Israel

By telling the left it has indeed forgotten what it means to be Jewish, Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay is trying to trigger a much-needed debate in Israel

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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FILE PHOT: A young ultra-Orthodox Jew walks through Jerusalem's Old City
FILE PHOT: A young ultra-Orthodox Jew walks through Jerusalem's Old City Credit: Ilan Assayag
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Twenty years ago, Israel Radio reporter Haim Rivlin pushed his microphone between the young Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the ancient kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri, then a potent political asset of the Shas party. “The left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish, they want the Arabs to be responsible for our security,” Netanyahu was recorded saying in Kaduri’s ear. It isn’t even clear the almost-deaf Kaduri heard him. There was a public furor that died down after a couple of days and Netanyahu continued on his way, inciting between sections of Israeli society.

On Monday, new Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay exhumed Netanyahu’s poisonous whisper in a speech in Be’er Sheva. After Netanyahu said the left forgot what it is to be Jews, Gabbay said, he believes the left in response “forgot to be Jews. It’s like we said to ourselves, ‘From now on, we’re only liberals.’”

Labor Party chief Avi Gabbay at Ben-Gurion University, November 13, 2017.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Gabbay was wrong only about one thing. It happened much earlier, and not just on the left. The vast majority of Israeli society – left, center and right – long ago gave up without a fight and transferred hegemony over Jewish values in Israel to the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredim) and the religious-Zionist settler movement.

Shulamit Aloni, founder of Meretz and one of the most militant secularists in Israeli political history, once said that “for peace I’m prepared even to wear a shtreimel,” referring to the round fur hat worn by Hasidic Jews. It may have been a noble statement of priorities – and, indeed, achieving peace is a more important ideal than separating religion and state. But what Aloni was also saying is that Judaism in Israel is now personified by the shtreimel – a symbol of a parochial and ossified Jewishness, dictated by one small, fundamentalist stream of the Jewish world. The bottom line was that Aloni and her colleagues failed to bring peace and left us with the Haredim in charge of our Judaism.

Despite his meteoric rise to the top of Israel’s main opposition party, Gabbay is still a beginner in politics. Unlike his predecessor, Isaac Herzog, and his main rival for the center ground, Yair Lapid, he doesn’t recite a carefully honed and inoffensive list of messages. He’ll learn, but for now there’s something refreshing about a senior politician and candidate for prime minister who seems to be saying what he really thinks.

What he actually said on Monday in Be’er Sheva, when he seemed to be endorsing Netanyahu’s whisperings to Kaduri, was that the left and the rest of Israel should be challenging that Haredi and religious-Zionist hegemony.

He is right. We won’t see peace if we wait for a majority of Israelis to convert to universal, liberal ideals. And experience teaches that “buying off” the Haredi parties won’t get them to vote in favor of peace deals. The fundamental change that has to come in Israeli values, so it can have a more just society and end the military occupation of another nation, will only come through a resolute campaign over Israel’s Jewish values.

The disdain and anger from the left toward Gabbay indeed proves the left may not have forgotten what it is to be Jewish, but it has given up the fight over defining what that means.

A banner advertising Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay's speech in Be'er Sheva, November 13, 2017. The main headline in the banner says "The road to victory."Credit: Ilan Assayag

The almost violent reaction whenever the word “Judaism” is used in the political sphere is testament to the association it has in their minds with just one type of coercive and narrow Jewishness. As if there is no other way to define Jewish identity. The recent campaign against the intrusion of religious groups into the national school system has been about blocking their influence. There has been no serious attempt to articulate an alternative.

Unlike Aloni, Gabbay isn’t proposing that we all wear shtreimels, as long as the left can get back to power. The rest of his speech, which didn’t receive as much attention, was about the role Judaism can play in society, and about respect for different attitudes and beliefs. He said his preference is for a Jewish identity that puts the emphasis on the values of Mitzvot Bein Adam Lechavero – the Torah’s commandments on a just social life. I personally don’t agree with all of Gabbay’s religious beliefs, especially with another recent statement when he said he doesn’t understand how you can be Jewish and not believe in God.

But he wasn’t trying to impose his views on anyone. He was, however, proposing an option for a Jewish-Israeli identity that isn’t dictated by the ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionists.

It was an invitation to a conversation, even an argument. But instead of the left taking up Gabbay’s challenge and proposing their own versions of secular and progressive Judaism, they prefer to shut down the debate.

Interestingly, all of this is happening at a time when in the United States – the largest Jewish community in the world – young Jews are challenging the establishment and redefining Jewish values for our generation. But the chorus line of the Israeli left has deserted the fight and seems hell-bent on proving that Netanyahu was right.



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