The protests that began right after the new government was elected in November, and which intensified with the proposals for judicial reform, have laid bare the deepest and probably most abiding social conflict in Israel: what kind of a country are we supposed to be?
In truth, this is a tension that predates the formation of the state; in fact, it is part and parcel of the foundational debates about the idea of a Jewish return to our homeland, and the idea of what kind of state we should have, if indeed we should have a state at all.
Obviously, the formation of the state mooted the issue of whether or not to have one. But its character has been a proverbial Rorschach test, taking its form as perceived by its beholders.
Ironically, it was easier to pay homage to Israel as a Jewish state when there were only a small number of “Jews” here, as opposed to “Israelis.” Giving 400 yeshiva students a military pass was both politically expedient and of little practical consequence.
After all, most of the country was adamantly secular, like today’s Tel Aviv. So, there was largely a consensus as to Jewish character – after all we did have a Jewish calendar – and the day to day religion for most was secular Judaism, infused with some Bible study and awareness of important holidays.
This, of course, disregarded a major unappreciated development in this country – the great Mizrahi/Sephardi/Levantine migration, which effectively almost doubled the country’s population overnight with people who did not share much of the world view, especially the Jewish world view, of those who received them.
So, below the social radar, as it were, the proliferation of the haredi sector and the Mizrachi sector would gradually transform the country, as would the ideological depletion of the kibbutz movement that animated the Jewish spirit of Mandate Palestine and formative years Israel.
The Mizrahim had their societal coming out party in 1977 with the election of Menachem Begin, and the ascension of the Likud party. The haredi population has continued to grow, with haredi parties often part of governing coalitions. However, the aggregation of three religious parties, playing a critical role in the current coalition, has put religiosity on the map and in the public’s awareness in an unprecedented fashion.
A rising resentment of religion among secular Israelis
Which brings us to the idea that we seem to be at a crossroads. For many secular people, there is a looming specter of a theocracy waiting to descend upon us all. It is not important to speculate what form this will take; what is relevant is that it is a widespread, viscerally emotional concern, where facts should not be used to disabuse a powerful fearful narrative.
Sadly, and destructively, the somewhat delusional fear of being forced into religiosity has triggered a tremendous resentment of religion and religious people among many people who are secular. Nowhere is this resentment greater than for ultra-Orthodox haredim and hassidim, who are monolithically perceived as social parasites.
So, there is the insult of being forced to abide by ultra-Orthodox sensibilities, piled atop the injury of having to subsidize their non-productive lifestyles.
FOR THOSE secular Israeli Jews who look longingly at a more affordable Portugal or Croatia or Cyprus, the value of being in Israel is increasingly less tangible. The idea of the building and maintaining the one and only Jewish state in the world, and the first in two millennia, holds little attraction to them, especially if the price of participation is seen to be religious coercion.
Ironically, it is the also not too beloved (to the old time seculars) Mizrahim who are the insurance policy against a theocracy here. Mizrahim are profoundly traditional and reverential Jews. To their great credit, they are also very live-and-let-live Jews, a decided departure from the Ashkenazi religious norm. The last thing they want to be told is that they must do it this way, instead of the way they know and love.
If the Mizrahim have their way, Israel will never be religiously coercive. If the fear of theocracy can be dispensed with, what then truly underlies the world view that says that says our country is being taken away from us, and we just want to be like a normal, democratic country not beset with all the issues that a Jewish Israel forces upon us?
I fear the answer lies in an ignorance and lack of awareness that has led to a facile disparagement of the uniqueness of being Jewish. The founders of this country were not religious, many were anti-religious, but most all of them were knowledgeable about Jewish tradition, history and practice.
The same can no longer be said about the majority of secular Jewish Israelis today. Simply stated, they are Jewishly ignorant, and have no reason to cherish something they have no awareness or knowledge of, nor familiarity with.
We know that this is part and parcel of Jewish history. In more recent times, lack of interest or desire has probably replaced persecution as the preeminent driver of Jewish dispersion and disappearance.
But recognize this is not a matter of some people in the Diaspora losing the Jewish thread. This is the State of Israel, the Jewish homeland, and those who are pushing for Israel to be the new Denmark, or the 51st US state, have significant influence and a prominent voice.
So we cannot just sit back and hope that we stay the course. We must affirmatively, passionately and lovingly shout from the proverbial rooftops that the only way to maintain the Jewish people is to cherish, defend and elevate our country as the place that we were given by God, and where we were meant to fulfill our destiny as His partner in creation.
Yes, we have lots of challenges and no shortages of problems. But let those all be dealt with through the prism of a Jewish state, with a Jewish sensibility.
Some of us are rigorously observant, others less so. But even those who feel no tug to be religious should still feel the amazing call, an echo of the one given to our father Abraham, to be the distinctive other, the one not reckoned among the others, the one who sees in our nation the fulfillment of the prayers of our forebears for centuries.
Whatever else we do, whatever else we argue and disagree about, let us close ranks around this incredibly critical point: Israel is and must always be the Jewish state.
The author is chairman of the board of Im Tirtzu and a director of the Israel Independence Fund and B’yadenu.