Middle Israel: The three faces of Israeli secularism

Israel's Education minister Rafi Peretz (photo credit: MENAHEM KAHANA / REUTERS)
Israel's Education minister Rafi Peretz
(photo credit: MENAHEM KAHANA / REUTERS)
‘They teach evolution everywhere in the world,” noted Shulamit Aloni, an objective observation that would have cost her nothing had she not added: “Only here do they stuff into children’s heads that the world was created in six days,” a quip that summarily ended her stint as education minister.
It was 1993 and the man who appointed Aloni, Yitzhak Rabin, thus learned what Benjamin Netanyahu still refuses to accept – namely, that the education minister cannot hail from Israel’s ideological extremes, whether Right or Left.
Yes, Education Minister Rafi Peretz’s political biography is very different from Aloni’s (1927-2014), an outspoken rebel who as a young lawmaker was a thorn in Golda Meir’s side, and who by 1993 had been in politics for 28 years. Peretz, whose remarks this week concerning gays irked Netanyahu – not to mention the gay community and the entire liberal majority – has been in politics hardly half a year.
Not only is the former IAF pilot a political novice, he is built entirely differently from Aloni. A soft-spoken educator and father of 12, he listens to people’s souls and – as his army buddy and political rival Benny Gantz attested – Rafi Peretz is a tender-hearted man.
Even so, ideologically Peretz represents the minority that views Jewish secularism, whether Netanyahu’s, Gantz’s, or multiple Israeli Nobel laureates’ – as an aberration in Jewish history’s course.
HAILING FROM religious Zionism’s messianic end, Peretz is in some respects closer to ultra-Orthodoxy than to Modern Orthodoxy. That is why the former IDF chief rabbi is cool toward observant women’s enlistment, that is why he did not go to university, that is why he has a problem with homosexuality, and that is why he is unsuited to be education minister.
Yes, Peretz was humble enough to retract his original statement concerning gay conversion therapy, a kind of retreat that few people, and even fewer politicians, would readily stage.
Even so, his appointment by Netanyahu is as wrong as Aloni’s was in its time. For Peretz is as distant from the consensus as his inversion Aloni was in her time, and an Israeli education minister, even more than an Israeli defense minister, must embody the Israeli consensus, certainly not defy it.
Ironically, this rule’s positive example emerged immediately after Aloni’s departure, with her successor Prof. Amnon Rubinstein’s accidental appointment.
RUBINSTEIN WAS as secular as Aloni. A senior law professor and a co-founder of Meretz, he was a flag-bearer of liberal legislation and a major opponent of religious coercion.
However, as education minister he set aside the contentious parts of his agenda, and focused on the consensual cause of deregulating higher education.
The result was an astonishing geographic and social expansion of academic schooling, with dozens of new colleges sprouting everywhere from Safed through Ashkelon to Eilat, and with the seven schools that granted BA’s when Rubinstein became education minister, multiplying since then to 62.
The beneficiaries of this revolution were not Rubinstein’s voters but all of Israel, especially the social periphery, whether Arab, ultra-Orthodox, the urban poor or the newly arrived.
It was, to be sure, a natural continuation of Jewish secularism’s historic course, as Rubinstein himself has just portrayed it in a sharp, insightful and inspiring Hebrew book titled The Story of the Secular Jews (Dvir).
SURVEYING THE biographies of secular luminaries such as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka and Benjamin Disraeli before analyzing dramas such as the Holocaust and the liberation of Soviet Jewry, Rubinstein’s book shows how secular Jews can cultivate their Jewishness without being religious.
While warning of the creeping retreat from the early Zionists’ liberalism, Rubinstein offers an agenda, a reading of history and a set of heroes for the secularism that made the Jews produce intellectual, scientific and political achievements unmatched by any other nation.
Coincidentally, Rubinstein’s book came out in tandem with two other Hebrew books about Israeli secularism. One is Tel Aviv University historian Aviad Kleinberg’s Guidebook for the Secularist (Scharf), the other is Hartman Institute fellow Micah Goodman’s The Philosophic Roots of the Secular-Religious Divide (Dvir).
Goodman’s book complements Rubinstein’s, in that it describes secularism with deep respect and salutes secularists like Ahad Ha’am, H.N. Bialik, and A.D. Gordon for having “paved a path that frees a modern Jew from being locked in the past, and at the same time does not shed it.”
Arguing that modernity produced an “identity accident” that intensified both religious conservatism and secular radicalism, Goodman argues convincingly that an evolving Israeli Judaism challenges both. A religiosity that is open to the world is a different religiosity, he writes, just as a secularism that is open to the past is a different secularism.
Kleinberg’s tone is entirely different.
SUBTITLED How Not to Believe without Apologizing, his book takes the religious-secular clash as a given, arguing that the secularists are on the defensive and thus need intellectual ammunition, which he then sets out to supply.
Between them, these three books portray the three faces of 21st-century Israeli secularism: nostalgia, acrimony, and dialogue.
Dialogue has two sides: the ideational, which Goodman cultivates, and the pragmatic, which Rubinstein embodied in his politics and writings.
Acrimony also has two sides: the secular, which Kleinberg personifies, and the religious, which the new education minister’s milieu embraces, not only in its attitudes toward women, minorities and gays, but in its overarching conviction that Jewish secularism is a historic deviation, a temporary glitch, whose aftermath will be every Jew’s return to full observance of Jewish law, as that circle interprets it.
Such thinking is shared by a minority of Israelis, as is Kleinberg’s secularist bellicosity.
Both extremes’ representatives are equally unsuitable to head the Jewish state’s Education Ministry, which needs not a bickerer like Shulamit Aloni, but people like Micah Goodman, who spends his days mapping bridges, or Amnon Rubinstein, who spent years building them.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019) is an interpretation of the Jewish people’s political history.