Opinion |

The Birth of Secularism

Yuli Tamir.
Yuli Tamir
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Avigdor Lieberman speaks at a press conference, September 22, 2019.
Avigdor Lieberman speaks at a press conference, September 22, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Yuli Tamir.
Yuli Tamir

The most important person in the recent election was pushed to the sidelines and almost forgotten: outgoing Education Minister Rabbi Rafi Peretz.

In the few months in which he served as minister, Peretz managed to demonstrate to the general public what dangers are embodied in religionization. No longer the pleasant words of deceased Education Minister Zevulun Hammer, or the moderate statements of Rabbi Yitzhak Levy, and certainly not the pluralism of Rabbi Shai Piron. Closer to the ideological brutalism of his predecessor, Naftali Bennett, Peretz made it clear what a country led by a religious, conservative, messianic leadership that aspires to “convert” the broader public to its views would look like.

This is how the danger of religionization received official recognition and in its wake, its “alter ego,” secularism, was born. We should note that most Israelis do not have secular ethical viewpoint. Many are believers, observe religious law to some extent, and are traditional or modern Orthodox. Israeli belief has many faces. What is shared by these citizens is the lack of desire to live under a regime of religious coercion, and across the board opposition to the ultra-Orthodox and Zionist Haredi approach, which strives to turn Israel into a state ruled by Jewish law, and exploits the respect that most Israelis have for religion to avert any real partnership with its society while enjoying financial benefits. This large group is now gathering under the banner of secularism.

Avigdor Lieberman was the first to identify this trend. Many immigrants from the former Soviet Union suffered from the yoke of the Rabbinate: non-recognition of their Jewishness, raising difficulties in the conversion process, bureaucratic complications concerning marriage and divorce – and what is maybe the most painful of all, burial outside the fence for immigrant soldiers whose Jewishness was in doubt.

No injustice was left undone to the new immigrants in the name of religion. The seed of the opposition to religious coercion – not to Judaism – sprouted there. But that was not everything. The Marxist viewpoint according to which religion is the opium of the masses trickled down to the collective consciousness of the olim, who since their arrival in Israel have been flung back and forth between their Jewish identity and the view that was common in the Soviet Union: That religion is a focus of conservatism and cultural regression. In this way, the new immigrants were similar to Israel’s founding fathers, who viewed religion as a source of cultural inspiration, but refused to allow it to dictate a Halakhic lifestyle for them, or even a traditional one.

This is why when the first wave of immigrants from the Soviet Union arrived, the “Ashkenazi-secular-veteran-socialist-patriots” welcomed them because they believed the olim would strengthen the Ashkenazi-secular-socialist camp and guarantee its rule. The misunderstanding between these immigrants and the veteran Israelis was deep, and the aliyah was accompanied by a taste of disappointment because the olim had never intended on serving the interest of the veteran Israelis – only their own interests. They despised socialism and were more nationalist than local patriots. They voted for sectoral parties of Russian-speakers and became part of the right-wing bloc.

The “Russian” parties were niche parties, but their representatives never lost their desire to influence all of Israeli society, to leave the “Russian ghetto” and conquer the Israeli center. Lieberman has aspired to this for years, and now, all at once, the two goals have merged into a clear single road with secularism at its center, and which promises protection for the immigrants’ interests alongside fulfillment of their desire to redefine what it means to be Israeli. Lieberman is taking a resolute step into the center court and defining the core of secularism by doing so: Demanding the conscripton of the ultra-Orthodox into the military, changing the character of the Jewish Sabbath and calling to rein in the power of orthodoxy.

Had Rafi Peretz not clarified for the public the inherent dangers of religionization, Lieberman’s voice may not have resonated so loudly. The moment Peretz released the rein and together with Smotrich and his colleagues launched an official campaign to convert the secular, the resistance to religionization burst into the heart of the public sphere. Groups of parents and educators started taking steps against religionization, Yair Lapid remembered that it had been his calling card, Lieberman turned it into an election slogan and Benny Gantz took it another step forward by presenting it as a political action plan.

Has a new awareness for demanding freedom of religion and freedom from religion been born in Israel? If Lieberman insists, and Gantz follows suit, perhaps the great hope the founding fathers pinned on the immigrants from the former Soviet Union will be realized and we’ll find ourselves redefining Israeliness in a way that balances religion, tradition, culture and secularism. Then, in contrast to prevalent opinion, it will transpire that the recent election was not redundant after all.

Professor Tamir was minister of education and minister of immigration absorption.

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