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Secular Israelis have Grown Up

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secular israelis

Distress signals sent out by secularists in recent months have been picked up loud and clear by the Secular Forum, though stridency does not necessarily ensure soundness of the writers’ arguments or best serve their interests. The most important step of any strategy is precise analysis of a given situation. Incorrect analysis leads to hasty action that fails to solve the problem or actually exacerbates it. Thus, the Secular Forum bewails the failure of secular parents to protest Jewish education as in the past. They are undoubtedly correct in predicting that “you couldn’t fill a single school with secular parents who are truly disturbed by their children being exposed to Jewish education in school.”  However, unlike them I do not consider this a symptom of suicidal intent on the part of the secular public; in fact, it indicates maturity and reason. Most enlightened Israelis distinguish between the religious establishment with its outrageous behavior and our ancient, rich intellectual and cultural heritage. The problem lies not in the message but in the messengers; the majority of secular Israelis understand this, and therefore are not convinced by the Secular Forum’s dire warnings, opting instead for strengthening Jewish education in the general school system.

Yaakov Hazan, a founder of Hashomer Hatzair and Mapam, famously quipped: “We hoped to raise a generation of apikorsim [unbelievers], instead we got ignoramuses.” The remark evokes the words of Micha Yossef Berdichevsky, figure of intellectual inspiration for Hazan and Second Aliyah leadership, and founding father of the ethos of the New Jew: “In defeating the past, we ourselves become the defeated.” Many Israelis today who no longer wish to erase their past are demanding that the education system engage with Judaism directly, with an attitude of respectful criticism. To quote another leading thinker, Mordechai Kaplan, founder of the reconstructionist movement: “The past has a vote, but not a veto.”  This is the kind of open, enriching conversation Israelis seek to hold with their tradition, and they are certainly entitled.

Moreover, secularists are playing Education Minister Naftali Bennet for a scarecrow to frighten off those who are not of his party or do not share his views – manipulative demagoguery of the cheapest kind. The current situation in the education system began not with Bennett but with that eminently secular Education Minister Amnon Rubenstein, who, on receiving the Shenhar Commission’s recommendations in 1994, implemented them fully; from then on, these same recommendations have been the underlying principle of all the educators in the ministry – most of them secular. Bennett’s program is merely the continuation of the Shenhar Commission. Yet Bennett’s policy too can justly be criticized for allowing massive infiltration of secular schools by Orthodox organizations – funded by the taxpayer; here too, however, the criticism should be levelled at the schools for allowing religious organizations access, not at the minister.

The fall of secularism is attributed by the Forum also to the “Jewish renewal movement in Israel” which has developed from a tolerated hobby into a dangerous threat.

I seriously doubt whether Forum members have ever even met anyone from Kibbutzim College, BINA, the Alma Center, Oranim, the Kibbutz Beit Hashita institute, the TALI Education Fund or dozens of similar, secular Jewish education organizations, now perceived as “enemies of secular Israelis”. They claim that the search for a secular Jewish identity reflects the tragic internalization of the concept of “the empty cart” – another incorrect analysis with woeful consequences. These organizations suffer from no complex over dearth of cultural goods; rather, they seek to complement their half-full load with such cultural and intellectual assets as they still lack.  Israel, like any nation, must connect with its cultural heritage, just like people in Britain, France, and Russia take pride in theirs.

The first Mishnah in Bava Metzia deals with the legal problem of two people claiming ownership over a single prayer shawl:

“two people holding onto one garment, one says it’s all mine and the other says it’s all mine.”

Taking the prayer shawl as a metaphor of the repository of Jewish culture, today the Orthodox community claims: it’s all ours, while the secular public claims: it’s nothing but an old prayer shawl…”

Theodor Herzl, thoroughly secular visionary of political Zionism, expressed this at the First Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897: “We have come home. But Zionism is a return to Judaism even before it is a return to the land of the Jewish people. We have not the slightest intention of renouncing any part of our culture”.

More and more secular Jews in Israel, as they come closer to Zionism, are rediscovering and reclaiming their cultural and intellectual roots.

Have the radical secularists, like their Haredi counterparts, renounced Zionism?


Dr. Eitan Chikli is the Susan and Scott Shay Director General of the TALI Education Fund.