I have been dealing with Israel’s religious wars for 30 years, and I am still astonished by what goes on. And I am astonished too that we keep hearing the same things over and over—and most of it is wrong.
Let’s look at the most recent rounds in this conflict.
Rabbi Dov Lior is, I believe, an Arab-hating racist. Supposedly a teacher of Torah, he has distorted Torah for his own political purposes—making our sacred writings a weapon of hatred rather than a vehicle of peace. But are his contemptible actions illegal, warranting questioning by the police? It is not at all clear to me why that should be the case. And the same thing is true of Rabbi Yaacov Yosef and others in this camp.
I know that as an American I have a First Amendment mentality, and my Israeli friends have explained to me why Israel—and much of Europe, for that matter—is different. But they have not convinced me. Yes, Israel is a country divided and at war, facing existential dangers from every direction. Still, on balance, I prefer a vibrant, free market of ideas—and one that includes radical sentiments from right and left.
It goes without saying that I oppose the consistent efforts on the right to stifle dissent on the left, including attempts to silence Israeli Arabs and legislation now being considered to criminalize statements that support boycotts of Israel. I strongly oppose boycotts, but if Israel’s citizens want to advocate for them, so be it; let them have their say.
And then there was the utterly amazing controversy about the Yizkor/Memorial prayer recited in army ceremonies. Until now, the official version has read “May the people of Israel remember…their sons and daughters.” The Chief of Staff decided to change it to “May God remember…”, and secular Jews exploded in protest.
My response: Are you kidding? Many Israelis, religious and secular, find comfort in referring to God in these circumstances. Since the change in text imposes no burden on secular Jews while offering spiritual support to bereaved parents, the protestors discredit their cause by such behavior.
If a fight is to be made about religious practices in the army, let it be over real issues—such as the truly outrageous attempts to exempt Orthodox soldiers from training under women instructors or indeed from serving with women soldiers at all. These are issues with the potential to undermine the morale and fighting ability of the army. They, and not liturgical formulations, are the matters that require our attention.
And finally this: These incidents are indicative of the deep mistrust and even hatred that exist between religious and secular elements of Israeli society. Such attitudes are to be found nowhere else in the Jewish world, and that is not surprising. The reason for this hostility is that Israel has a coercive, monopolistic religious establishment—and in every case in human history, without a single exception, such establishments undermine rather than advance religious life.
The time has come to dismantle Israel’s religious establishment, and by so doing to diminish hatred, increase understanding, and strengthen Torah in the Jewish state.