Bibi’s (and Israel’s) Coming Moment of Decision

Bibi’s (and Israel’s) Coming Moment of Decision

It is a truism to point out that the role of Jewish religion in Israel has expanded enormously beyond that envisioned by the State’s founders.  I repeat endlessly to my students that Zionism was founded primarily as a secular movement and that it sought to reframe Judaism in national terms.  But now it has to be acknowledged that much, though not all, of the religious public is trying to reframe Israel in religious terms. 

In the last few days two very different but equally important articles have discussed aspects of the role of religion in Israel.  One is by my old friend, Eva Illouz, who is a Professor of Sociology at Hebrew University and a very popular Ha’aretz weekend columnist, at .  The other is published by the International Crisis Group (ICG) and available here.  This column reflects some of their ideas as well as my own.

Many of Israel’s most influential perceptions today are built on a dangerous amalgam of Jewish historical victimization and a religicized distortion of Zionism implying Jewish superiority which are only partially integrated into a Westernized democratic society and universalized values.  The contradictions between these two opposing set of values are growing sharper, though the society has been able to provide enough relief valves (such as the more than 25% of Israeli couples who avoid the official Rabbinate’s strictures in their relationships in a variety of ways) to avoid explosions.  Yet internal (the role of religion, non-Halachic Judaism, and of Arabs and other non-Jews) and external (war & peace issues) tensions seem to be inexorably rising towards a national crisis, likely in the next generation or so.

As a liberal with a strong Jewish identity, I would like to see a Jewish, democratic, and pluralistic Israel more or less within the 1967 boundaries.  In other words, a state which is simultaneously of its own citizens and a Jewish state.  I think that is perfectly possible and feasible.  But I can’t maintain with a straight face that Israel as a society is moving at all in that direction today.

The development of a society opposing the direction I’d like to see is partly the culmination of a process that ensured Jewish survival through 2000 years of Diaspora but is endangering the State of Israel today.  Illouz writes:

Israel’s national imagination was born from three diasporic reflexes: it conceived of national membership in religious terms; it conceived of solidarity with distant Jews more readily than with those with whom one shares a land; and it readily separated and segregated the Jews from the non-Jews. These three reflexes conditioned the ways in which social bonds were forged.

These have prevented the growth of a general Israeli nationality and consciousness, certainly in the political sphere, and heightened the fear of integration in the Middle East.  When translated into increasingly strict Halachic terms by the rapidly growing Orthodox and Haredi populations, they are splitting Jewish society apart as well.

As the ICG article documents, the religious population has increasingly adopted new interpretations of both Halacha and Zionism that are absolutely contradictory to universalized values. Many of these ideologies are invisible to most Israelis and seem bizarre.  But the increasing presence of religious Zionists in state institutions, especially the army, means that the values they bring with them cannot be ignored. 

Illouz’s article is a call for strengthening Israel’s universalistic values and recognizing that many of the institutions in Israel today, such as the increasing Haredization of religion are inimical to them.  I’d like to see that happen, but I think the opposing forces of religion have to be taken into account.  That is the point of the ICG article, as can be seen in its specific recommendations. 

Strangely enough, the man in the middle of this is the current prime minister.  Bibi Netanyahu is devoutly secular and profoundly right wing.  In other words, he shares a partial worldview with both of the two main camps in Israel today.  His instincts have almost always driven him to ally with those on his right, religiously and politically.  Thus, he finds himself heading a government today in which his views, which at least nominally support two states, are seemingly in a minority.

As I write this, news of an interim deal with Iran has been announced, to Bibi’s profound chagrin.  He will likely have no choice but to accept it and, if it succeeds, as I expect it will, this may focus renewed attention on the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which, paradoxically, most who support them have long since written off.

I am not so sure.  I think Bibi Netanyahu may well realize that if the peace talks are allowed to fail — and their moment of decision is only a few months off — then the right-wing religious forces to which he himself has no affinity may become unstoppable.  He has no love — and probably little respect even — for the liberal and secular forces which Eva Illouz and I celebrate and identify with.  But there is a chance — even if only a small one — that he may recognize that the real danger to Israel as a democratic and Jewish state (in whatever form) comes from his erstwhile allies on the right.  I hope he realizes in time that the peace talks are not only about the future shape of Israel but, even more, about its soul.

A viable agreement providing for two states will not bring about a utopia for anyone.  But if the messianic expectations that have developed within Israel’s “Hardal” (“National Haredi”) sector [an amalgam of the religious nationalist and ultra-Orthodox camps] are brought back to earth, there is a chance of “normalizing” Israel as a state, and finding a consensual way forward.  Otherwise, there is a real chance that Israel may implode, even as Palestinians may explode. 

By | 2013-11-24T17:57:00-05:00 November 24th, 2013|Blog|3 Comments


  1. Anonymous November 24, 2013 at 9:57 pm - Reply

    Dear Mr. Scham,

    Interesting that you should choose to put forth the International Crisis Group as a useful source.

    Not too long ago, Ralph Seliger accused Nathan Thrall of the ICG of promoting insidious anti-Israel tropes:

    While the author of the report you cite seems to be a different ICG staffperson, one would think that an internal vetting and peer review process would likely involve both of them and the same supervisory staff.

    Any concerns about insidious, anti-Israel tropes in the ICG’s reporting?



  2. Thomas G. Mitchell December 6, 2013 at 9:24 pm - Reply

    Indian writers have for many years compared the founding of Pakistan to the founding of Israel, probably in a view to delegitimize Pakistan in Third World circles. The founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was secular and bourgeouis–similar to Theodor Herzl or Chaim Weizman. Jinnah died a year after Pakistan was founded and the state has become steadily more Islamist since the late 1970s when Mohammad Zil ul-Haq took power in a coup. The same process seems to be taking place through the ballot box as took place through dictatorship in Pakistan, with the military being a mediating force in both instances.

  3. Anonymous December 6, 2013 at 10:24 pm - Reply

    We have to be careful about making easy assumptions about religion & state in Israel. Today’s government is the first one in years with no ultra-Orthodox party in the coalition. And the successor party to the National Religious Party (the old modern Orthodox party) is Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home): right-wing in relation to the Palestinians but more moderate on religious matters, and not even an explicitly religious party at all.

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