The role of religion in world affairs has become a hot-button issue amongst observers of international news. It is very difficult to sift through the media landscape in the United States and Europe without running into a television studio discussion or Twitter exchange about the influence that religion has on our daily lives.
The debate over faith has been particularly robust in the West following a chain of major events over the course of the past two decades – from mass-casualty terrorist attacks to foreign military interventions to the disintegration of Middle Eastern states and governments.
Yet while Westerners are free to debate the merits of arguments put forth by New Atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, Israelis don't seem as eager to engage the topic – a strange phenomenon considering the fact that Jews are known for their willingness to butt heads on virtually anything ("for every two Jews, there are three opinions," etc.)
Why aren't atheists in Israel – a Western democracy that accords its subjects freedom of speech and freedom of the press - part of the national discourse?
"Atheism is perceived as something that is not Jewish," said Shahar Ilan, the vice president of Hidush – For Religious Freedom and Equality, an NGO that seeks to integrate ultra-Orthodox Jews into the workforce while advocating for greater separation between religion and state.
"When you say that you are secular, you still haven't said that you rule out Judaism or Jewish culture, but when you say that you are an atheist, there's an inference of something that is distant from Judaism," he said.
Since atheism is looked upon in Israel as inherently anti-Jewish, and disengagement from Judaism is not looked upon favorably, the logical conclusion – at least according to Ilan – is that nonbelievers in a deity are pushed to the margins.
"I'm not saying that this is correct," Ilan said. "In fact, I don't see any problem in creating a sort of Jewish atheism. But because of the perception of atheism as something distant from Judaism, Israelis are not as forgiving."
This widespread attitude is all the more surprising given that Israel's most revered historical figures – from Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl to its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to many of the framers of the Declaration of Independence – were declared atheists.
Ilan said that atheism has become a fringe topic in Israel that nobody even bothers to oppose it. Instead, his focus has been on cultivating a cogent Jewish secularism that "can compete in the marketplace of ideas."
"This is important for two reasons," he said. "Firstly, I have no intention of cutting ties to my roots. Secondly, the only way to compete in the marketplace of values in Israeli society is to say, 'What I have to offer is something that is good for the Jews and good for Judaism'."
Lamenting what he calls "a crisis in secular Zionism," Ilan said that Israeli society has undergone a transformation in recent decades which has seen "a new elite emerging and replacing the old guard."
There are a greater number of religious Zionists in positions of influence, while the founding generation of Israelis – a largely Ashkenazi group which was reared on socialist values that de-emphasized religion – and its offspring has seen its influence diluted by demographic trends and socioeconomic disparities.
Periodically, the Israel Democracy Institute publishes a survey of attitudes toward religion and state. In 2012, the IDI's Guttman Center for Surveys found that 80 percent of Israeli Jews believe in the existence of a deity, a record number since the poll was first conducted two decades ago. The same survey showed that just 16% of Israeli Jews shunned any religious traditions, like reciting kiddush
at Sabbath dinner or conducting a Passover seder.
In contrast, a Gallup poll of respondents in 57 countries found a nine-percent decline in the number of people who consider themselves religious.
The only hope for nonbelievers in Israel is an odd fusion of atheism and nationalism, something whose chances for success are slim, according to Ilan.
"The word 'atheism' is considered cosmopolitan in nature, even anti-nationalist," he said. "If you believe that nationalist atheism contradicts the principles of atheism, then there's a good chance that atheism has no chance to survive here. But if you say that there's no problem in creating a Jewish Zionist secularism that was here during the founding of the state," then it has a chance to catch on.
Prof. Jeffrey Woolf of Bar-Ilan University agrees that while atheism is not a dirty word in Israel, "it is becoming increasingly irrelevant."
"There's a political, cultural, and economic subtext that also has to be taken into consideration," he said. "There's been a massive Jewish renaissance in this country which has been observed by sociologists, anthropologists, and your average person."
"The state is profoundly far more Jewish than it has been, certainly in the previous 20 years," Woolf said.
The deep-seated fear among secular Israelis is that if demographic trends continue - with the ultra-Orthodox birthrate dwarfing that of the secular public – the country is in danger of becoming more fundamentalist, a notion that Woolf decries as "demagoguery."
"I hate to disappoint them, but the religious community – especially the haredim – are very much in flux today," he said. "Also, if you really take somebody aside, nobody thinks that [ultra-Orthodox] Judaism is in any way, shape, or form ready to take on the running of a state."
If anything, the growing role in governance by religious Jewish elements will benefit Judaism since it requires a keener sense of inclusiveness in decision-making, according to Woolf.
"People who say [the country is in danger of becoming fundamentalist] want to see Israel become Europe," the professor said. "It wants it to be anti-religious, anti-clerical, and that's not happening. I think, personally, it's a good thing."
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