Ehud Ein-Gil, a socialist from the Israeli group Matzpen, discusses the rise of religious fundamentalism in Israel and how the struggle against it overlaps with the struggle against zionism.
Religion, zionism and secularism - Ehud Ein-Gil
When man’s life lay for all to see foully grovelling upon the ground, crushed beneath the weight of Religion, which displayed her head in the regions of heaven, threatening mortals from on high with horrible aspect, a man of Greece was the first that dared to uplift mortal eyes against her, the first to make stand against her; for neither fables of the gods could quell him, nor the thunderbolts, nor heaven with menacing roar, nay all the more they goaded the eager courage of his soul, so that he should desire, first of all men, to shatter the confining bars of nature’s gates. Therefore the lively power of his mind prevailed, and forth he marched far beyond the flaming walls of the heavens, as he traversed the immeasurable universe in thought and imagination; whence victorious he returns bearing his prize, the knowledge what can come into being, what can not, in a word, how each thing has its powers defined and its deep-set boundary mark. Wherefore Religion is now in her turn cast down and trampled underfoot, whilst we by the victory are exalted high as heaven.
One thing I fear in this matter, that in this your apprenticeship to philosophy you may perhaps see impiety, and the entering on a path of crime; whereas on the contrary too often it is that very Religion which has brought forth criminal and impious deeds.
(Lucretius, De Rerum Natura)
India is supposed to be a religious country above everything else, and Hindu and Moslem and Sikh and others take pride in their faiths and testify to their truth by breaking heads. The spectacle of what is called religion, or at any rate organised religion, in India and elsewhere has filled me with horror, and I have frequently condemned it and wished to make a clean sweep of it. Almost always it seems to stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition and exploitation, and the preservation of vested interests. And yet I knew well that there was something else in it, something which supplied a deep inner craving of human beings. How else could it have been the tremendous power it has been and brought peace and comfort to innumerable tortured souls? Was that peace merely the shelter of blind belief and absence of questioning, the calm that comes from being safe in harbour, protected from the storms of the open sea, or was it something more? In some cases certainly it was something more …
A Roman Catholic friend sent me in prison many books on Catholicism and Papal Encyclicals and I read them with interest. Studying them, I realised the hold it had on such large numbers of people. It offered, as Islam and popular Hinduism offer, a safe anchorage from doubt and mental conflict, an assurance of a future life which will make up for the deficiencies of this life.
I am afraid it is impossible for me to seek harbourage in this way. I prefer the open sea, with all its storms and tempests. Nor am I greatly interested in the after life, in what happens after death. I find the problems of this life sufficiently absorbing to fill my mind. The traditional Chinese outlook, fundamentally ethical and yet irreligious or tinged with religious scepticism, has an appeal for me, though in its application to life I may not agree. It is the Tao, the path to be followed and the way of life that interests me: how to understand life, not to reject it but to accept it, to conform to it and to improve it. But the usual religious outlook does not concern itself with this world. It seems to me to be the enemy of clear thought, for it is based not only on the acceptance without demur of certain fixed and unalterable theories and dogmas, but also on sentiment and emotion and passion. It is far removed from what I consider spirituality and things of the spirit, and it deliberately or unconsciously shuts its eyes to reality lest reality may not fit in with preconceived notions. It is narrow and intolerant of other opinions and ideas; it is self-centred and egotistic, and it often allows itself to be exploited by self-seekers and opportunists.
This does not mean that men of religion have not been and are not still often of the highest moral and spiritual type. But it does mean that the religious outlook does not help, and even hinders, the moral and spiritual progress of a people, if morality and spirituality are to be judged by this world’s standards, and not by the hereafter. Usually religion becomes an asocial quest for God or the Absolute, and the religious man is concerned far more with his own salvation than with the good of society. The mystic tries to rid himself of self, and in the process usually becomes obsessed with it. Moral standards have no relation to social needs, but are based on a highly metaphysical doctrine of sin. And organised religion invariably becomes a vested interest and thus inevitably a reactionary force opposing change and progress.
(J. Nehru, Autobiography)
The success of the ‘Islamic Revolution’ in Iran and its effects on many Muslims in the neighbouring countries have focused the world’s attention on this religious phenomenon, as though it were an exceptional revival, peculiar to Islam, of medieval ideas in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The facts, of course, are quite different. Religious revival has been registered during the last few years in various parts of the world. Outstanding examples of this are the mass welcome of the Pope in the USA (the ‘first world’), Poland (the ‘second world’) and Mexico (the ‘third world’); the growth of various religious and mystical sects, mostly of Asian origin, in the western world, where they have attracted many young people; the strengthened hold of Catholicism in Latin America, following the spread of the ‘revolutionary priests’ movement; and the ‘repentance’ of Israeli Jews who ‘go back’ to orthodox Judaism.
Each one of the multifarious instances of this religious revival has its own social causes, specific to its own place and time. Nevertheless, seeing that capitalism has embraced the world of the twentieth century and has formed it into one entity, this religious revival – with its various specific causes – has one common social background.
This assertion might seem far-fetched, were it not for the fact that the same ‘psychological’ or ‘psycho-social’ terms are used everywhere to explain the religious revival. ‘Frustration’, ‘alienation’, ‘helplessness’, ‘a dead-end feeling’ – do these words describe the emotions of an Iranian peasant towards the penetration of modern capitalism and its cultural values into his country, or the feelings of an American youth in the face of the economic (but also ideological) crisis which has hit modern industrial society, or the sentiments of a Polish worker confronted with a rigid bureaucratic regime and the ever-felt presence of the Soviet Union behind it? These words in fact provide some explanation, however superficial, for the feelings of people under all three regimes, in all three parts of today’s world.
At the root of the religious revival is the ideological crisis of our time. For about a hundred years, the feelings of frustration and alienation had an outlet; there was hope for change, there was faith that the world – despite many retreats – was moving forwards, to a better future. There was less reason for feelings of dead-end and helplessness. And in the absence of these there was no impetus for searches for a religious alternative. The way out, the hope, the alternative were seen as bound up with the forward motion of the wheels of history; ‘one more thrust forwards’ was needed in order to allow the achievements of science and technology to be used for the benefit of the whole of society, in order to overthrow capitalism and establish the longed-for socialist society. It was those whose class interests were threatened by that advance who tried to find refuge in religion, or used it as ‘opium for the masses’ in order to blunt the latter’s desire for change. Even where socialism seemed to be far off, as in the third world, hopes were still pinned on advance, industrialisation, modernisation.
But despite various successes the experience of the last hundred years has generally been a bitter one. The thrust forwards has given birth not to socialism but to a series of oppressive bureaucratic regimes, which are far from providing a credible alternative to capitalism not only in the industrialised countries but now also in the countries of the third world. The same thrust forwards also gave rise, albeit indirectly, to fascist regimes, which were put up by capitalism as one more line of defence against the forces of social revolution. At the same time it has become clear that under capitalism the countries of the third world cannot make great and significant advance.
As the road of ‘progress’ appeared to be a blind alley, alternatives began to be sought in the past. Hence the search for ‘roots’; hence the opposition to modern technology (e.g. the irrational horror of computers or robots); hence also the fear of catastrophe (atomic war, pollution of the environment, population explosion, star wars, test-tube babies). These fears have penetrated also into circles of the revolutionary left, inducing an atmosphere of disenchantment with progress and encouraging the growth of various reactionary and mystical ideas. (By the way, a similar phenomenon also occurred in Bolshevik circles after the failure of the 1905-6 Russian Revolution, when some members of the left faction of the party started to ‘search for God’.)
In these circumstances it is not surprising that the last few years have been a time of religious revival.
Religious revival in Israel
Israel, like South Africa, is an unusual state in as much as its social structure includes features of developed industrial capitalism alongside colonisatory features of a settler state. This peculiar structure has led the Jewish religious revival in Israel to take a specific path.
The phenomenon of ‘return to religion’ in Israel (known in Hebrew as hazarah bitshuvah – ‘repentance’) is in fact not one but two quite distinct phenomena, although religious circles are trying, rather successfully, to blur the differences between the two.
The first kind of ‘return to religion’ is a reaction to the existential problems generic to all developed capitalist societies, combined with the dead-end feeling engendered by the loss of faith in a meaningful social change. To this is also added, of course, a specific ingredient: the existential problem of the Jews as a minority in the Arab east. But while it is difficult to disentangle the generic factors from the specific ones, I believe that the former predominate, as far as this first kind of ‘return to religion’ is concerned.
It is perhaps symbolic that the first famous ‘repentant’ of this kind in the recent wave of conversions came from the circles of Matzpen and landed, of all places, in the camp of Neturei Karta, the most conservative and hence the least modern sect of Judaism. (It is important to point out that, contrary to other Jewish religious sects and groups, Neturei Karta have remained uncompromisingly hostile to zionism.) The dozens who have followed him are no different in motivation from those young Israeli Jews (or, for that matter, young people in the West generally) who have been driven by alienation and dead-end feelings to seek a guru and join various religious or mystic sects. Such conversions constitute a rejection of modern life and society and of their values, and imply – at least in principle – withdrawal from social and political activity.
The second current of ‘repentants’ in Israel is driven by quite different motives and is composed of people seeking other things altogether. This current consists mainly of ostensibly secular-minded Jews who, due to the ideological malaise of zionism and the shedding of its last democratic veils in recent years, have found themselves unable to justify their presence in Palestine. The only valid justification – based on the democratic right of every person to live where he or she likes – is unacceptable to them because it also implies the right of the Palestinian refugees to be repatriated. The only way open to such people, so long as they remain zionists, is to seek legitimation in the ‘ancient sources’, that is in the Jewish religious interpretation of history.
This current includes people who begin to practice some – but definitely not all – of the precepts of Judaism, as well as many ostensibly secular-minded people who for reasons of convenience continue to ignore all religious precepts, but are willing to allow the clericalists to run wild as they please, because they are the bearers of the ‘legitimation’ and ‘justification’ for the Jewish presence in Palestine.
Since the first-mentioned current is similar in nature to well-known phenomena in the western world, and since it is mainly made up of individuals genuinely searching for a solution to their existential problems, I shall not discuss it any further. The second current, on the contrary, is specific to Israel and is overtly political; I shall therefore deal with it in some detail.
The alliance between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ zionists
From its very beginning, zionism was marked by an alliance between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ elements. Claiming to be a ‘national movement’, zionism always regarded the preservation of Jewish ‘national unity’ as a supreme value; and it was always the religious members of the movement who drew the ‘red line’, beyond which they would prefer to cause a split. Thus the tradition whereby the secular zionists always make concessions to the religious zionists when the latter threaten to cause a split is as old as the movement itself. The religious zionists have always kept the initiative in the movement on matters involving religion.
In addition to the ideological importance of religion as the ultimate source of legitimation for zionism, the religious zionists also rendered the whole movement an invaluable service of a more directly political kind. Up to the second world war, zionism was a minority movement among world Jewry, opposed not only by Jewish democrats, socialists and communists, but also by large sections of Orthodox Judaism. The latter condemned zionism as a heresy against the doctrines of Judaism and particularly against the belief in divine (rather than political) messianic salvation. In the zionist struggle against this type of religious opposition, religious zionists played a key role, which goes a long way towards explaining the readiness with which ‘secular’ zionists capitulated to their dictates.
The history of the zionist project in the period immediately following the first world war bears out the importance for zionism of the collaboration of religious Jews. At that time, Orthodox anti-zionists were in the majority among the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. This Orthodox anti-zionist camp had a spokesman of great stature – Jacob de Haan, a well-known Dutch poet who became a religious zionist and immigrated to Palestine, where he underwent another conversion and joined the religious anti-zionist camp. The zionist leaders’ fears of this camp were particularly great because it had a real chance of winning a majority in the elected representative body of the Jewish community in Palestine. The zionists rightly feared that such an outcome would irreparably damage their chances of maintaining the massive support of the British authorities in Britain and Palestine. The religious argumentation of anti-zionist Judaism was so effective that the zionists decided to gag it by force. In 1924, a group of assassins (which included Rachel Yana’it, wife of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi who was later to become the second President of Israel) murdered Jacob de Haan. These facts were kept secret for decades, and have only been published recently, when most of the protagonists of the affair were no longer alive.
If the zionists were ready to go so far as to liquidate a spokesman of their religious opponents, they were clearly also ready to go very far in making concessions to their religious allies.
But the main role of religious zionism was the ideological one referred to above. Religious tradition provided the only legitimation for the zionist colonisation of Palestine. Zionism could not afford to alienate its religious adherents, because in their absence it would lose the ideological justification for the zionist project in Palestine.
Religion was thus used as a tool by the ‘secular’ leaders of zionism. Following the second world war – during which the Nazis (aided by the acquiesence, and in some cases the actual collaboration, of the zionist leaders) exterminated millions of Jews, most of whom were anti-zionist – the majority of Jewish religious leaders harnessed themselves to the zionist cart. This only served to reinforce zionism’s religious connection, especially in view of the fact that the organised power of Jewish communities in the United States and elsewhere is for the most part concentrated in the hands of rabbis and religious leaders. Israeli zionist activists and emissaries, including those who regard themselves as atheists, often proudly describe how, on their visit to a Jewish community in Latin America or Eastern Europe, they go to a synagogue to pray. This is invariably described as a ‘deeply moving experience’.
At first religion was merely used, in some cases very cynically, by leaders who were non-believers. This is well illustrated by the mission of the ‘socialist’ zionist activist Yavni’eli, who was sent to Yemen in 1910 in order to recruit Yemenite Jews as a cheap labour force, fit to compete with the cheap labour of the Palestinian Arabs and thus serve zionism in its struggle for ‘Jewish labour’. In order to persuade Yemen’s Jews to leave their homeland and go to Palestine, Yavni’eli presented himself to them as a herald of the Messiah and declared that the day of salvation had arrived. (For further details see R. Shapiro, ‘Zionism and its Oriental subjects‘, Khamsin 5, p 11 f.)
But in time the attitude of many zionists to religion became gradually less cynical: they were undergoing a process of self-conversion. A tool which is used for many years begins to arouse genuine feelings of attachment in its user and becomes a sort of fetish. This is what happened to the ‘secular’ zionist leaders; they developed a liking for religion which had served them as a useful tool for so long. They came to feel that they could not live without it, and even those – still a majority – who are not inclined to practise it personally are nevertheless well disposed towards those who not only preach it but also wish to impose it on others. Hence the great willingness to allocate large public funds to religious bodies and institutions in today’s Israel, where pressing social needs are cast aside because of ‘lack of funds’.
The shifting status quo
With the creation of Israel as a ‘Jewish State’, which grants special privileges to ‘Jews’ according to the Law of Return, there was an immediate need to define who would be entitled to these privileges – in other words, who is a Jew. As the leaders of religious zionism threatened that if their demands were not met ‘the nation would be split’, the religious definition of ‘Jew’ was adopted. In order to prevent a split, it was decided not to enact a constitution (in which the status of religion in Israel would have had to be defined explicitly) but to subject the citizens of Israel to the jurisdiction of religious institutions – those religious institutions, that is, which are recognised by the state – in all matters of personal law. Thus civil marriage and divorce are not allowed in Israel. Under the same threat of a ‘split’, the ‘secular’ zionists also capitulated to the religious dictate in the matter of burial; Israel allows religious burial only, and the ‘unity of the nation’ is preserved beyond the grave.
Political realities led ‘secular’ zionism to an alliance with only one current within the Jewish religion – Orthodox Judaism. This was not because all Orthodox Jews (as opposed to members of the Conservative and Reformed synagogues) were ardent zionists. On the contrary, some of the most determined opponents of zionism, including Neturei Karta, belong to the Orthodox camp. But other currents of Judaism were more inclined to seek the integration of Jews in their respective countries as one tolerant and tolerated religious community among many, in tolerant pluralistic societies. For this reason, Orthodox Judaism was the only Jewish religious current to have any real presence in Palestine. (For the sake of clarity it must be pointed out that this current includes both the Sephardi and the Ashkenazi Rabbinates, the anti-zionist Neturei Karta, the Agudat Israel party which had opposed zionism at first but later accepted it, the National Religious Party, NRP, which is supported by the majority of religious zionists, as well as the Gush Emunim militants.)
Thus it was the presence in Palestine of Orthodox Judaism, and the absence of other currents, that determined to which religious camp the zionist movement was to capitulate, as well as the terms of this capitulation. For, despite all the differences and mutual hatred between the various Orthodox groups, they are all united in their adamant opposition to the other two main currents of Judaism. The Reformists and Conservatives are virtually barred from gaining a foothold in Israel; in fact, in some ways they suffer worse discrimination than some nonJewish religious denominations. They receive no government grants, their rabbis are not empowered to officiate in marriages or to grant divorce, and conversions performed by them are generally not recognised. For example, a person converted to Judaism by the Reformist rabbi Alexander Shindler, leader of the Jewish establishment in the USA, may be refused recognition as a ‘Jew’ (and hence refused Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return) by the Israeli Ministry of the Interior, which is traditionally a domain of the NRP. The Ministry of Religions, as well as the Religious Councils financed jointly by the government and local authorities, who pay the salaries of a huge host of Orthodox rabbis (and indeed of many religious officials of recognised non-Jewish denominations), do not employ Reformist or Conservative rabbis.
This systematic discrimination, which gives the lie to the zionist claim that Israel allows freedom of worship and religious equality to all, is practised and accepted by both main zionist party blocs, the Likkud and the Labour Alignment. Thus, for example, in March 1980 the chairman of the Labour Party, Shim’on Peres, helped the Likkud government to pass a new Chief Rabbinate Law, which confirms the exclusion of Reformed and Conservative Judaism from the list of religious denominations recognised in Israel. And this is the same Shim’on Peres who had promised the leaders of these two communities in the USA that when the Labour Party returns to office it would grant equality to all Jewish religious currents…
The Jewish population in Israel is subjected – by virtue of the state’s laws – to the grip of the Orthodox clericalists, who impose their code in many spheres of life. Public transport does not operate on Saturdays, cinemas and theatres are closed on Friday nights, during the Passover week bread is not sold, on Yom Kippur the whole country is virtually closed down. Religious studies increasingly encroach on the syllabus of state schools, and religion dominates personal and family law: the laws concerning marriage, divorce and burial.
Their experience in turning the Jewish religion into a tool of zionism led the zionist leaders to try making use of other religions as well. Without being consulted, the non-Jewish citizens of Israel were submitted to ‘their own’ religious establishments. Thus Israel is one of the few remaining countries in which Catholics cannot obtain a divorce (since civil divorce does not exist), and where a man and a woman who may both be atheists but who were born to parents of different religions cannot marry each other.
The State of Israel does not recognise its Palestinian Arab citizens as a national minority, but merely as members of various religious denominations. (Despite this, most Israeli Jews, who resent the fact that the PLO regards them merely as a religious community, have never considered demanding from their own government to recognise the Palestinians in Israel as a national minority…) The state has bestowed its recognition of Muslim religious officials (which entails payment of a monthly salary as state employees) in a selective manner. In this way virtually the whole Muslim religious establishment has been turned into an instrument used by the authorities for controlling and containing the Palestinian population.
These officially established religious leaders have been a prime target of attacks by all kinds of religious ‘reformers’ and fundamentalists, who denounce them for ‘falsifying Islam’ and ‘collaborating with the Jews’. Attacks of this kind have recently acquired momentum because, following the victory of the Iranian ‘Islamic revolution’, circles close to the Muslim Brethern have gained influence among the Palestinians inside Israel. The struggle of these circles is directed primarily against their rivals within the Palestinian community – the communists and nationalists on the one hand and the officially established religious leaders on the other. Thanks to their struggle against the former, these fundamentalist Islamic circles do not, for the moment, bear the full brunt of the zionist repressive machine.
The State of Israel ‘transformed’ its Palestinian citizens from a national minority into a collection of confessional groups; at the same time, the Druze confessional group was ‘transformed’ into a so-called nationality. In the early 1950s the government made a pact with certain Druze clerics, recognised them as leaders of their community and granted the community itself recognition as a ‘nationality’. As part of this deal, young Druze men, unlike other young Arab men, are conscripted into the army. (As a concession to Druze religious sensitivities, young Druze women are exempted.) Is it therefore surprising that among the heads of the Druze Initiative Committee – which struggles against the old Druze leadership, against conscription and for the recognition of the Druze as an inseparable part of the Palestinian Arab people – there is also a religious leader, Shaikh Farhud Farhud?
Since May 1977, when the Likkud came to power and Zebulun Hammer, member of the NRP and supporter of Gush Emunim, became Minister of Education, the penetration of religion into the education system has accelerated. School textbooks have been re-edited: new chapters on Jewish religious subjects were added, and at the instruction of the new minister every picture or illustration showing men or boys was removed if among the figures there was none wearing a skull-cap (that is, a religious Jew); such pictures and illustrations were replaced by new ones, showing boys or men in skull-caps and girls or women in ‘modest’ dress (long sleeves, low hem-lines). In addition to this hidden brainwashing, there is also open, but no less subtle, brainwashing. School-children are taken on organised tours of synagogues ‘in order to acquaint them with the Jewish heritage’. Religious studies (Bible and Talmud) take up a bigger part of the syllabus. In the history syllabus, the share of Jewish history has been increased at the expense of the history of other peoples. There is a definite policy to appoint religious teachers to teach these and other subjects.
All this has been taking place in the so-called secular state schools. In Israel, unlike certain western countries, religious studies are provided by the state. In addition to the network of religious state schools, there is an ‘autonomous’ school system, also financed by the state but run by the Agudat Israel party, for which the ordinary religious state schools are not strict enough. But the clericalists are not satisfied with these two systems of religious schools and – with the approval of the ‘secular’ politicians of both the Labour Alignment and the Likkud – have made considerable inroads into the so-called secular state schools.
This religious coercion in the educational system meets with hardly any resistance on the part of the non-religious public. Parents put up with the increasing penetration of religious preaching into the schools, just as most Israelis put up with religious coercion in other spheres of life. Many parents even react by saying, ‘What is so bad about this? It is good for the kids to be aware of their roots’.
This attitude of acquiescence, or at best indifference, towards religious coercion derives from the same cause as the second current of Israeli ‘repentants’ mentioned in the beginning of this article.
A political revival
The international isolation of Israel following the 1967 war, the diplomatic successes of the Palestinian national movement (which have undermined pro-zionist ideology around the world) and the economic, social and ideological crisis of Israeli society have led many Israelis to feel dissatisfied with the ideological justification of zionism which they had hitherto taken for granted. Even the kibbutzim – strongholds of allegedly secular and socialist zionism, a version of zionism which used to be justified as ‘egalitarian’ – have lost confidence in those old ‘values’.
In any case, it is a fact that the zionist aspiration to ‘return to the land of the forefathers’ has always had to be legitimised by an appeal to ‘the sources’ – that is, to the Jewish religion; it is a fact that using the term ‘historical rights’ as a secular substitute for ‘divine promise’ has solved nothing, for the channel through which the modern Jew is supposed to have acquired these ‘historical rights’ is the continuity of Jewish existence over the centuries, which was a religious existence; it is a fact that zionism from its very beginning was not (as some secular zionists try to argue) a progressive movement of ‘rebellion against religion’ but, on the contrary, a reaction against secular trends towards the integration of Jews in the society in which they were living – individual integration by assimilation, or political integration through participation in democratic or socialist movements. All these facts constantly undermine the repeated attempts of secular zionists to sever the organic connection of zionism with religion. For zionism and the Jewish religion are tied to each other ideologically as well as in practice. If zionism were to lose its last ideological line of defence, which is provided by religion, then its true nature would be exposed even to its own adherents – its nature as a colonisatory, xenophobic and racist movement.
In order to counter Arab arguments, the zionists can no longer be satisfied with their old excuses. In the present world-wide climate of religious revival, the zionists feel secure in putting forward religious arguments. Moreover, without religious gloss the basic concepts of zionist ideology and practice – ‘the Chosen People’, ‘the Divine Promise’, ‘hatred of the Gentiles’, Jewish colonisation and expropriation of non-Jews – are clearly revealed as extreme racism. In putting a religious gloss on these concepts, in presenting them as an integral part of Judaism, the zionists are in effect attempting to purify an abomination by an appeal to the presumed ethical values of religion. In this connection the zionists can use their favourite weapon of emotional blackmail: anyone who rejects the fundamental principles of zionism and attacks its basic concepts, which are justified by means of religion, is represented as attacking the principles of Judaism, and anyone attacking Judaism is branded as an antisemite. Once this trick is seen to work, it is repeated again and again, until it no longer fools anyone, except those who use it.
What is strange is that religious arguments are used not only by the annexationists. Once the latter had put forwards their religious justification, their opponents too – ‘moderate’ zionists, including such people as the anti-clericalist Member of Knesset, Shulamit Alloni – were not far behind with quotations from the Old Testament and from the writings of various rabbis, in order to prove that there is religious sanction for withdrawal from the occupied territories (or for abortions, or for the marriage of bastards, and so on and so forth). In this way the debate comes full circle: everyone uses religious arguments, the controversy gradually turns into a theological disputation; and religion celebrates.
Is it therefore surprising that it is Gush Emunim which has become the spearhead of annexationism, rather than the Movement for Greater Eretz Israel, which had been established much earlier and which attempted to justify the annexation with ‘secular’ arguments? Is it surprising that virtually all the ‘secular’ annexationists have joined the bandwagon of Gush Emunim and have willingly capitulated to all its religious demands? Is it surprising, too, that the opponents of Gush Emunim within the zionist camp have a feeling of inferiority in their ideological debate with it, in view of the combination of ‘pioneering energy’ and ‘total faith’ with which the members of the Gush are possessed?
No, there is nothing surprising in all this, just as it should surprise no one that many kibbutzim have in recent years built synagogues for the use of their members, that they have set up well-attended circles for the study of the Old Testament, Talmud and cabbala, and that this lively religious activity encompasses not only the ‘founding fathers’ but also their children and descendants. These people are not themselves religious fanatics. In the zionist camp religious fanatics are a numerically insignificant minority, but their activities are supported by a much larger minority of believers, and legitimised by the vast majority of the Jewish public in Israel. The motives for this support and legitimation are for the most part not merely religious but clearly political. And, as we have pointed out earlier, those who have made use of religion as a tool over a long period grow attached to it and fetishise it with what eventually becomes a kind of religious faith.
The secular struggle
From the foregoing it should be clear why, despite the growing clericalisation of many spheres of life in Israel, the secular or anti-clerical struggle has scored no significant success. The small steps which the ‘secular’ zionist parties were pressurised into taking against the clericalists’ opposition, such as the legalisation of abortion for social reasons, were short lived. The League against Religious Coercion, which in its heyday in the 1960s managed to mobilise several thousands to street demonstrations, flickered out and disintegrated following the capitulation of the political parties that had supported it – particularly MAPAM – to their interest in getting a share of political power through an accommodation with the clericalists. But the League was not a secularist movement. It only campaigned against religious coercion, and in doing so was supported by some religious people who were disgusted by the way in which both religious and ‘secular’ leaders were making use of religion. Even so, the League did not escape being accused by the clericalists of trying to ‘divide the people’. (In this connection it is worth pointing out that the clericalists, who so often accuse others of ‘divisiveness’ are in fact themselves divisive in the worst sense: it is they who press for discrimination between the ‘priestly tribe’ which includes every Cohen, Katz, Kaplan etc. – and other Jews, between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, men and women, ‘bastards’ – Jews born of ‘impure’ or incestuous union, who are barred from marrying – and ‘proper’ Jews.)
The separation of religion from zionism – which is in effect the true meaning of the aim of would-be secular zionists – would seriously undermine the zionist ideological edifice, and for this reason any struggle for this aim, insofar as it remains tied to zionist ideology by an umbilical chord, is doomed to failure. For this reason too it is difficult to find ‘secular’ zionists who are prepared to wage a determined and consistent struggle for this aim.
One of the biggest mistakes made by most Israeli anti-clericalist campaigners was to assume that the majority of Israeli Jews are secularists, who perceive the clericalists’ diktat as an oppressive imposition and are ready to rebel against it. Thinking that they represent a ‘silent secular majority’, those anti-clericalist campaigners made far-reaching statements and demands which had no basis in reality. Their tactics were founded on the illusion that large masses could be easily mobilised for the struggle, and when it became clear that the masses do not respond to the clarion call of their self-appointed ‘leadership’, the latter soon sank into despair.
The Israeli Secularist Movement, founded in early 1977, still suffers from some of the weaknesses which had led to the defeat of previous anti-clericalist struggles. But in defining itself as secularist, and thus emphasising a positive value in contraposition to religion, the Movement has acquired a certain strength to persevere despite its small numbers (after three years in existence, it only had about 300 members), as well as the patience required for making a thorough assessment of the situation. In the 13th issue (July, 1979) of the movement’s paper Mabba’ Hofshi (= Free Expression), there is the text of a lecture, under the title ‘Theological Politics’, delivered by Gershon Weiler during a night of discussion held by the Movement in Kibbutz Ga’aton. This is how he assesses the position of secularism in Israel:–
“…All these matters we are talking about, it must be clear to us, do not interest about sixty per cent of the people of this country. About forty per cent understand what we are saying, and of these about thirty per cent are firmly against us. We are left with ten per cent who both understand and agree with us, and of these ten, nine do not go with us because they have other considerations, economic interests, interests of peace and war. We remain one per cent. Our struggle, the struggle of the one per cent – let us be clear about what is happening in this country – is over the remaining nine per cent…’
And later on he says:
‘…As far as educating the people is concerned, what must be destroyed… is the consciousness of elitism, of the Chosen People. And I say this deliberately in kibbutzim, in this kibbutz, because I was surprised to discover that one of the processes which seems to be taking place in the kibbutzim is that people are falling for this elitism of the Chosen People in various forms, and I remonstrate against this.
‘The normalisation of the Jewish people has two meanings. One meaning is accepted by everybody. Yes, they say, the Jewish people has become normalised; there is now a Jewish postal service, a Jewish army, Jewish roads, and so on. This administrative technical part is acceptable to everyone. But there is also another aspect, the secularisation of life; and this is rejected as I said by ninety per cent, including those who do not understand and those who are against it. They oppose secularisation and normalisation in the sense of giving life a secular meaning.’
Although Gershon Weiler is a professor of philosophy, he has managed to grasp the true relation of forces in the struggle between clericalists and secularists. One can hardly expect more than that from him, because, being a ‘teacher of ideas’, he likes to be listened to rather than listen. This is why he is capable of blurting out this rubbish about ‘Jewish postal services’ and ‘Jewish roads’, things which do not exist. Gershon Weiler does not call himself a zionist, and is not particularly interested in world Jewry. But neither does he grasp the complexity of the connection between zionism and religion. He is therefore obsessed by one issue, on which he bombards the press with letters and on which he speaks whenever he gets the chance: the exemption from military service of Jewish women who declare themselves to be religious.
In his battle for ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’, Weiler does not struggle for a uniform criterion for exemption on conscientious grounds which would be applicable to all – men and women, religious and nonreligious, Arabs and Jews – but would like religious Jewish women to be compelled to do military service. He is not alone in this, and on several occasions the leadership of the Secularist Movement has allowed itself to be carried away into making statements which smack of anti-religious coercion. And on these occasions many of the Movement’s zionist members were surprised to discover that it is precisely the anti-zionist socialists of Matzpen who insist within the movement on a consistent support for the principle of religious freedom.
What are members of Matzpen doing in the Secularist Movement? The answer is that the Movement’s aims are formulated in sufficiently broad and general terms, so as to allow for a very wide spectrum of views.
Nevertheless, no political party has dared openly to support these aims. The ‘secular’ zionist parties are afraid of antagonising some of their own members who are religious and the religious parties, who are their potential coalition partners. And the Communist Party (RAKAH) has also preferred to keep well away from the Movement; because RAKAH too is flirting with certain religious circles – in this case Palestinian Arab, whether they are Muslim, Christian or Druze.
Although the Israeli Secularist Movement is by no means antizionist, and only a small minority of its members are anti-zionists, it cannot help but run foul of the nexus between zionism and the Jewish religion. The majority of the movement’s members try in vain to undo this Gordian knot with their bare hands, but from time to time they are forced to cast a side-glance in the direction of Alexander’s sword.
In April 1980, the Movement held its annual general meeting, attended by some seventy members. The resolutions proposed at that meeting, as well as the amendments finally adopted, illustrate the clash of views within the movement, as well as the occasional side-glance at Alexander’s sword. In some cases, the ‘compromise’ finally adopted is so far-reaching, that some of those who voted for it would most probably have not done so on second thoughts.
One of the resolutions proposed said, ‘The Meeting states that the Movement has come into existence in order to wage political-ideological war for a secular state, and is therefore open to all who support this idea…’. After several amendments, the following final text won a decisive majority: ‘The Meeting states that the Movement has come into existence in order to wage an ideological war for a secularist world-view and for a secular, free and democratic state, and is therefore open to all who support this idea’. One amendment was inserted in order to emphasise the positive secularist content of the Movement’s struggle, as distinct from mere anti-clericalism. The second amendment was opposed at first because of its similarity to the PLO formula of ‘secular democratic state’, and for this reason the word ‘free’ was added in order to distinguish one formulation from the other.
If the PLO were serious about its slogan of a ‘secular’ state, it would have been able to embarrass most members of the Secularist Movement by calling for collaboration between the two organisations. But in reality the PLO is proposing not a secular state but a tri-religious (Muslim, Christian and Jewish) state, in which Islam would enjoy a measure of hegemony (witness the message of Arafat to Khorneini, in which the Palestinian revolution was described as part of the Islamic revolution). In the state proposed by the PLO the citizens would be classified as belonging to this or that religious community – which is not fundamentally different from the existing situation in Israel.
In contrast to the above radical resolution, which was adopted, another proposed resolution said that ‘the Israeli Secularist Movement will call for recognition of humanist secularism as one of the four currents which exist within the Jewish people’. This was an expression of the strange attempt to invent something called ‘secular Judaism’. Since the term ‘Judaism’ denotes a particular religion, namely the Jewish religion, ‘secular Judaism’ is a piece of Orwellian Newspeak. The source of this confusion is the fact that – because zionist ideology postulates the unity of world Jewry as a supposedly ‘national’ entity – most Israeli Jews are utterly mystified regarding the distinction between Judaism as a religion and the Israeli-Jewish people as a real national entity. In the event, the members of the Secular Movement displayed sufficient political maturity by defeating this proposed resolution by an overwhelming majority. But those who are emotionally attached to ‘Jewishness’ nevertheless succeeded in smuggling it into the Secular Movement through the back door by pushing through a ‘compromise’ resolution: ‘The Movement regards humanistic secularism as part of the spiritual heritage of the Jewish people…’.
There was even someone who proposed a resolution saying that ‘the Movement condemns the phenomenon of Jewish emigration from Israel, and will combat it to the best of its ability’. Although the majority in the meeting were zionists, they protested strongly against this attempt to drag in ‘matters that have nothing to do with the secularist cause’. This was the crudest attempt to harness the Secularist Movement to the interests of zionism; and it was defeated. It does not follow that the Movement’s zionist members realise that secularism and zionism are incompatible; but many of them clearly sense that secularism cannot go all the way with zionism.
Another resolution, adopted unanimously, also points to the direction in which the Movement may be going: ‘Faced with the waves of Jewish and Muslim fanatic religious revival and “repentance”, the Secular Movement calls upon all Israel’s inhabitants, regardless of their origin, to join the Movement and to struggle together and in equality against those on either side who incite human beings against each other in the name of a god who supposedly prefers his own believers who “carry out his commands”, and for the enactment of a secular constitution in the spirit of the Movement’s principles.’
I have no doubt that the political contradiction between zionism and secularism is the basic reason for the power of religion and its influence on the minds of most Israeli Jews; it is also one reason why the Secular Movement cannot become a mass movement. But despite its being confined for the time being to the margin of Israeli society, the quest of the Movement may make a considerable contribution to the ideological struggle against religion and may also help to shatter the widespread myth about the ‘secular’ nature of the State of Israel.