Thursday, August 17, 2006

A Secular Jew, A Religous Jew, A Believing Jew - So Near, and Yet So Far

Yesterday I added a small paragraph about the media at the end of the post, and since it probably got lost there, and I’m still obsessed about the media, I’m posting it again. This will also give me an opportunity to explain something about Israeli society that is usually overlooked, but is crucial nonetheless.
This is the quote:

“What kills me is the inconsistency of observing Jews that believe in God, in the Truth, follow His commandments, and yet cannot spot a liar or his lies even when they are staring him (or her) in the face from the pages of a news medium that does not believe in god nor the truth, and is in fact, representative of every pagan idea our ancestors fought against.The fact is - if you cannot spot such a lie, then you probably don't really care about the truth, which is why there is such a big difference between Jews (and anyone) that are observant or secular on the one hand, and people that believe on the other. I am secular, but I believe more than most observing Jews i have met.”

Like every other society there are many divisions in Israel – Arabs and Jews, men and women, rich versus poor, Eastern Jews vs. Western Jews and so on. But in my view, the most dominant division is the one dividing secular Jews from religious Jews, and in a way the struggle between the two camps can by itself explain all of Israel’s seemingly insane political moves in the past decade, and even before that.

The effect of Secular Jewry on Israeli Society
The first effect is that secular Jews created the state of Israel. Even if you dislike the state, one must admit that it is quite a large effect, and it is also a decisive one.
It was a secular Jew from Western Europe, Theodore Herzl who re-created Zionism as a part of the 19th century nationalist movement in Europe. Other secular Jews mostly from Eastern Europe took up the challenge, spearheaded the movement, populated it’s ranks, and eventually led it to the promised land. This happened while religious, observing, Jews mostly looked on, sometimes as disinterested spectators and sometimes as fierce opponents. The religious Zionists, who joined the effort to re-establish the state of Israel, were a minority among religious people at the time, and still are even today, in Israel. They were the forerunners of the Mizrachi movement.
What this means for Israeli society is that all it’s major institutions, all it’s laws, whether formal or informal, even the very language we speak nowadays, was created almost from scratch, with near total disregard to thousands of years of Jewish tradition.
The secular Jews who built this country were rebels. They rebeled against everything that was old and antiquated, everything that was perceived to be holding back the realization of their dreams, but most of all – against everything that reminded them that they were Jews – humiliated and downtrodden for centuries.
So, off went the kippah (yarmulke), the tzizzit, and the traditional garb. Prayers were forgotten, synagogues avoided, Jewish learning ignored and held in contempt. The religious Jew came to symbolize in Israeli secular society, everything that was wrong with Judaism. Everything that ever happened to us as a people was blamed on those primitive, dirty, bedraggled Jews. Sounds anti-semitic? It was, and still is. Zionism from it’s inception was anti-semitic because it had to be, because it was the only way to break away from a stagnant tradition that weighed upon the zionists so heavily, that it threatened to destroy the will and spirit of the movement before it even began.
As a secular Jew that received most of it’s education in Israel, the basic image of a religious Jew that was engraved in my mind was this: a Nazi grabbing an old, miserable looking Jew by the beard and dragging him along the street. A religious Jew, these images seemed to tell me, is a humiliated Jew, a hated Jew – so I, and everyone else – must do everything we can to be the exact opposite: bold, proud, modern Jews – Jews that do not look like Jews, and don’t behave like Jews, and don’t follow the traditions of Jews, but nevertheless – Jews. These Jews-who- are- not- Jews were called Israelis. A national ethos was born, in which Jews were passé, and Israelis were in.
If only life were so simple! Yes, the secular founders of this country rebelled, and they did so successfully. But they did not manage to forget. Some of them were fond of their upbringing or at least parts of it. The bible for many years was held to be an important part of a secular education, concentrating on the nationalistic parts, on Joshua’s conquests for instance. Archeology was the all rage for a time.
And not all Jews who arrived in the country were secular.
A majority of Jews arrived from Moslem states, after the inception of the new state of Israel. In Moslem society, there never was a separation between church and state. Everybody was defined (and still is) by his religion. This means that the newly arrived Eastern Jews never experienced the dissolution of the Church, the rise of the secular state, and the secular way of life, a circumstance that was crucial for European Jewry. This situation was complicated by the fact that there were Jews who were both religious and Zionist – the Mizrachi Movement. For years they were allies and partners of Israeli secular Zionists, and this of course necessitated many concessions.
In the end, the ethos of the reborn Jew – the secular Israeli - was doomed to be dragged down by the weight of it’s history which it could not deny. Actually, this did not happen in the end, it started to happen right at the beginning – in the sixth Zionist congress (1903) in which Herzl laid out his Uganda Proposal. This consisted of sending Russian-Jewry, assailed by pogroms at the time (surprise!), to Uganda. Although Herzl proposed this as a temporary measure, the world Zionist movement almost split on this issue, which meant, basically – to what degree are we Jewish? Are we so secular that we do not even care where are homeland is built? The overwhelming majority of participants - mostly East-European Jews, said no – we choose Israel, while a small, now-forgotten minority, split away and formed the ITO (details in the link above).

Degrees of Secular
What I am saying is that there are degrees of secularity in Israeli society and always were. Generally speaking there is the secular jew who wants nothing to do with his heritage or with other Jews, especially if they look like traditional Jews. In the past these were most likely to be Western-European in origin, people who have a firm belief in the separation of synagogue and state, so to speak, and even firmer insistent belief in Atheism . This reminds me of I joke I heard at a family gathering: someone asked this famous German Jew (I forget the name) how is she Jewish – “after all , you don’t pray, you don’t observe anything, what makes you Jewish.” They said. Furiously she rose up to affirm her identity: “ of course I’m Jewish – I don’t eat ham in the synagogue on yom-kippur!” Now that is a secular Jew – these are the people that plan their trips for the holidays so they will not have to be at home ,and be reminded all the time of that shameful secret, their secret identity, I mean their Jewish ancestry.
How many of these secular Jews exist in Israel? According to surveys that are conducted from time to time (sociologists here are fascinated by this issue) I would say about ten percent of the Jewish population is secular to the highest degree possible without actually committing suicide. Unfortunately this small segment of the population are the descendants, spiritually and sometimes physically, of the people that built this country, so for better or for worse they are holding this country hostage to their personal demons,(which are, in a way, part of our collective demons.) These secular Jews and their views are dominant in every important aspect of Israeli society, including the judicial branch, the economy, the Army, (where religious officers are weeded out of the higher ranks, and vetted and tested incessantly), and in the Israeli media and Academia(mainly in the Humanities & Social Sciences) .

The Traditional Jews
Most Jews are neither here nor there and would define themselves somewhere between secular and religious, saying something like this: “ tradition is important and we want to keep and cherish it, but we also want to participate fully in Western secular culture and all the wonderful things it has to offer, among them, chiefly, the freedom to do whatever we want without censure. “
These people look at the orthodox and see a restrictive way of life, and also, don’t forget, we were brainwashed in school to identify religious people with negative ideas. On the other hand, the complete disavowal of Jewish history and tradition, the self-loathing of the wannabbe gentile-Jew also disgusts and infuriates these people. The result is ambiguity, a mental split, and an inability on the part of the majority to actually part ways with the secular anti-semitic elites, because when they look around they cannot spot any kind of viable political or cultural alternative. Yet.

The Orthodox
These people are the devil incarnate, at least from the viewpoint of the secular elites. They are demonized in almost every way imaginable, and it is almost impossible to find a positive article in the media about orthodox people. They are used to being the shunned and hated minority in this country and actually seem to enjoy it at times. In other words, they are clearly Jewish, and unashamed of it. But they are not viewed in as bad a light as the religious Zionists are – these people must be crushed! Their homes destroyed, their will broken! The settlers, they are the real threat to Israeli society, so say the secular elites. Now, why is this so? How can a settler, living in peace and quiet, like the west bank momma be such a threat? I think that is because the threat is spiritual. Yes, the Arabs may kill us, but we will bury our dead and life will eventually resume it’s course as it always has. However, if the settlers realize their dreams, then , the secular thinking goes, they will not let us live our secular lives in our secular state. This means that in a way, the Israeli secular elites have much more in common with the surrounding Arab elites than with the Jewish people they are ruling since both identify Jewish people as the enemy.
All in all, the orthodox account for a little less than a third of the population in Israel.

The Believing Jew
Israel is divided into two camps – you are either religious “Dati” in Hebrew or else you are secular “hiloni”. Amazingly, the majority of tradionalists are completely ignored in this battle. Perhaps it is because of the visual aspect – if you do not wear a yarmulke it is assumed that you are secular. How important is that? Read this account in which Dr. Yehudah Tzoref a secular right-wing Israeli tells how Israeli security forces surrounded a settler house in east Jerusalem, and how the settlers inside the house, who already agreed to evacuate, asked him to remove their belongings, since he was the only secular person present. This tactic was important since world and Israeli media were waiting outside to document the settler’s defeat, and it was assumed that a secular Jew moving stuff would be simply ignored:
“…to my amazement, the tactic of “a secular evacuation” succeeded above and beyond my expectations. Time and time again I entered and left loaded with boxes, in front of all the media…the more I came and went, the more I was ignored. The minute I was identified as a leftist-looking secular person I became invisible as far as the media, the police and everyone else was concerned.”

The original is highly dramatic and he also recounts another experience where he is talking with a haredi woman and a policeman harasses her while ignoring him completely. The full version is a must read but it is in Hebrew. You can read it here, and as a secular Israeli I can assure you –it is true. A religious person in Israel has the standing of a black person in the states – the first to be detested, suspected, and arrested.
So it is clear that as a Jew in Israel you can be one of two things – secular or religious. This is an excellent tactic as far as the secular elites are considered, in the great tradition of ‘divide and rule”. However, it is not a completely accurate description of reality, and if the present state of affairs is to be somehow overcome, it is important to come up with a new definition of Israel’s Jews, one that will unite them, and disregard the superficialities. I happened upon the term “believer” “Ma’amin” in Hebrew, in the writings of Motti Karpel, one of the founders (recently retired, with no explanation) of Jewish Leadership,
and although the term is not defined clearly enough, it is a good start in my mind, because it describes a mental state, and not a political, or sectional affiliation, and most important, it marks the boundary between the ruling secular elites and their subjects.
For the moment I will state that a believer is, obviously, one who believes in God. Most people will say that they do indeed believe in god, so this is not a very useful definition. I would like to refine it and say that a believer not only believes in god, but also yearns to experience a relationship with god, and believes that it is possible, perhaps not attainable for all the people, and maybe not attainable all the time, but still possible. This is important because faith, or belief, are first and foremost an emotional experience, and this important aspect of our common Jewish faith seems to me to have been marginalized so that many orthodox people are really “dati” in the original meaning of the word, which means “law” (explained nicely here) and not religious which means “to reconnect”, while many traditional, secular looking Jews in Israel are actually believers. It’s just that no one bothered to tell them about it, or make it an important aspect of their lives.
It is also possible to give a psychological definition of belief ( as well as secular and religous) and I will attempt to do so in the future.

The divide in Israeli society between the secular, self-loathing elite and orthodox-looking Jews is threatening to destroy Israel, regardless of the fact that the majority of Jews consist of people who are comfortably in the middle. One way to heal this rift is to stop talking about religious and secular Jews, and replace those political and sociological terms with a more personal one – belief.
It is my belief that a philosophy of tikkun coupled with an emphasis on personal belief as opposed to sectarian affiliation, may be able to sideline those who enjoy dividing between us, and give believing Jews a higher, common ground to stand on and defend themselves against our would be destroyers – from without, and from within.

edit: just a few hours after posting this , Israeli Mazav tell of a perfect example of the ultimate secular jew:
'Peace Now' described as 'severe' a report indicating that the number of Israelis living in Judea and Samaria increased by three percent in the first six months of the year. At the end of June, the number of Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria reached 260,932, up from 253,748 at the end of last year, the mainstream Yesha revenants group said, citing a report by the Interior Ministry's population registry.

In what other country,in what century, would Jewish population growth be described as severe?


Karma said...

I think that you have an important point here. I recently conducted a study in Israel where I realized that very few people actually fit into the religious/secular boxes, even though that's how the society is divided. I don't think that the American divisions of Orthodox, Reform, etc. necessarily fit either. But, clearly, I think we should rethink the categories - based on cultural beliefs, religious beliefs, national identities, etc.

Jerusalem Joe said...

i'd love to read that study, or hear more about it. is that possible?

westbankmama said...

Excellent post - and a voice that I, for one, have been waiting to hear.

Heading for Sinai said...

Thank you for this post. It's very informative and challenging. I think your approach not only creates the chance for new kinds of relationships between different groups of Israeli Jews, but also has the potential for opening new space for non-halachic- but-believing Jews in Israeli culture and society. As emigration from places like the United States and Western Europe increases, I suspect we will see more than 'traditional' Orthodox believers emerge as important components of Israel's Jewry. These believers don't fit into the currently conceived religious/secular dichotomy. Moreover, your approach has the potential for opening lines of dialogue between "religious" Jews in Israel and non-halachic believers in, say, the US. This is a dialogue that must occur, and lines of connection must be secured, if there is not to be a permanent split between the 'traditional' Orthodox in Israel/US and more liberal forms of Judaism.

Jerusalem Joe said...

I sure hope that will happen.i know one thing - if this occurs it will be a grassroots effort, not a politically organized one.
politicians from all sides are way too invested in the current divides to give up on them.