Between Faith and Fate: Two Cultures of Zionism


By Noah J. Efron

The last elections illustrated the tidiness, the near- surgical precision, with which the Israeli electorate is bisected.  From the appalling initial triumphalism of Labor Party spinmeisters (Yossi Beilin and Yael Dayan each assuring overseas reporters that, yes, a margin of victory of one percentage point was a strong mandate from the people to concede territory for peace) to the uncertainty of the days that followed (when it was briefly thought that the swing vote might come from closed psychiatric institutions) to the final triumphalism of Likud spinmeisters (Ariel Sharon assuring overseas reporters that, yes, a margin of victory of one percentage point was a strong mandate from the people to freeze the peace process and build new settlements in Judea and Samaria), one fact emerged with splendid clarity.  The country is divided, right down the middle.

This fact is not new, nor did it go unnoticed in the past.  The last government, formed by Rabin, was also elected by the slimmest of margins.  On the morning after the 1992 elections, Yizchak Shamir protested, plausibly, that more Israelis had voted for right-wing parties than left-wing parties.  The left gained power, he insisted, only because his block had squandered votes on unelectable splinter parties.  Right or wrong, Shamir’s complaint reflected the fact that even before the Oslo accords, Israel was already neatly split.

It is tempting to see this division in the body politic as a sort of national ambivalence — like the conflicted feelings of an individual, writ large.  “When will you people ever make up your mind?,” a professor of international relations at Harvard asked me after the last elections, as though Israel had a communal will, but was too indecisive to exercise it resolutely.  It is now obvious to all that Israel has no single, communal will.  There is “a deepening sense,” as Joel Greenberg wrote in the New York Times on November 10, “that Israelis are becoming two peoples.  At one pole there is a worldly society with a yearning for normalcy, at the other a community of believers who elevated devotion to Biblical lands and divine precepts above the laws of the state.”

This remark is true and important, but is not Pulitzer material.  It is by now a stock observation that has been made in one form or another by Israelis as varied as Binyamin Zev Kahane (Meir Kahane’s son) and Amos Oz.  Publicists on the right and the left alike frequently rally support for their side in what is now referred to simply as “the culture war” in Israel.  Kahane contributed an article by that name to a collection of scholarly essays in honor of Baruch Goldstein, Baruch Hagever, published last year on his yahrzeit in Jerusalem.  His point of departure was simple:  “We have reached the point where there is a single chasm [between religious and secular Jews in Israel] that cannot be bridged or mended.”  For Moshe Zimmerman, the left-wing Hebrew University professor who compared the children growing up in Kiryat Arba to Hitler Youth, this starting point is no less self-evident than it is to Kahane.

Talk of culture wars and unbridgeable chasms serves more to shock and incite than enlighten.  It is rhetorical napalm, leveling every subtlety in its path.  For instance, the place of Charedim in the typology of kulturkampf is fluid.  Though Charedi parties have preferred to align themselves with the Likud, no Zionist party can be assured of their support a priori.  And as I have written elsewhere (and will not discuss here), one of the few things shared by most religious and secular Zionists is resentment for Charedim, resentment powerful and baseless enough that it can justly be called anti-Semitic.*  Not to mention the obviously anomalous position of Israeli Arabs.  For these reasons, the suggestion that Israelis are divided into unitary religious and secular camps is an oversimplification and a distortion.  Charedim and Arabs are often lumped together in Israeli punditry as “minorities,” in contrast to the Zionist “majority;”  this serves to delegitimate whatever political influence these groups manage to exert. (After the last election, for instance, one saw analyses of the electorate that excluded the Arab and Charedi votes.  These were attempts to distill which candidate attracted more votes from the “real” Israel, viz., Zionist Jews.  It was Netanyahu, by several percentage points.)

This article concerns only the group comprising secular and religious (dati leumi) Zionists.  Even in this group — once the “minorities” are excluded — a rigid division between secular and religious cultures is untenable.  Parties like Tzomet (right-wing, anti-religious) and Meimad (left-wing, religious) belie the idea that there are two, and exactly two, warring “cultures” in Israel.  Many secular Israelis are sympathetic to the political ideologies of religious settlers, and some religious Israelis are sympathetic to the political ideologies of the liberal left.  Neither the secular nor religious can be homogenized into a single camp, without overlooking important subtleties in Israeli culture.

Admitting all this, Greenberg was still right that a fissure is growing between secular and religious Zionists in Israel and, more significant still, between secular culture and religious culture in Israel.  This fissure is the result of differences even more fundamental, more primitive, than the profound disagreements about how Israel should treat Arabs inside and outside its borders.  In an essay he wrote to mark the anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, Yizhar Smilansky lamented that in today’s Israel “two peoples are living side by side, speaking two languages in the same tongue, reacting differently to the same events.”  Increasingly, religious and secular Zionists simply do not understand each other.  This mutual misunderstanding announces itself with numbing frequency.  Consider this post-script that Meir Shalev, a darling of Israel’s secular literati, appended to one of his recent weekly columns in Yediot Aharonot:

Talk of culture wars and unbridgeable chasms serves more to shock and incite than enlighten.  It is rhetorical napalm, leveling every subtlety in its path.

Minister Zevulun Hammer [of the National Religious Party] decided to bequeath “values” to our children, and part of his perfect vulgarity was already evidenced in the answer he gave to opponents of his plan:  “Youth want values,” he said, “so either they will find them in India, or we will provide them.” 

     To say that education without Hammer begins and ends in India, is like saying that education with Hammer begins and ends with hatred for democracy, with bigotry, with the Jewish underground, and with Yigal Amir.  In this case, by the way, I prefer India.

Hammer’s remarks were banal enough, making Shalev’s response seem inexplicably shrill.  One suspects that perhaps something was lost in the translation from the modern Orthodox minister to the secular modernist writer.

In fact, religious and secular Zionists so routinely misunderstand one another that one never need look far for examples.  Early in 1993, my reserve unit served a month patrolling in a mostly Christian Arab village named Beit Jalah, outside Bethlehem.  I spent the first days guarding a makeshift jail in the city that held a dozen or so teen-aged Palestinians caught throwing stones. I traded shifts with a new soldier from a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz, who announced to all that if he were ordered to do violence to a prisoner, he would refuse.  Word spread, and by the time I was transferred to jeep patrols two days later, a 30-year-old kollel student and father of five from Kiryat Arba asked me if I had minded spending so much time with a coward.  The only legitimate reason to refuse an order, he continued, is if it conflicts with halachah, like an order to evacuate Jewish settlements.  A week later, I shared a jeep with the kibbutznik, who had overheard the kollel student saying he would refuse an order to evacuate settlers.  “He’s just a traitor,” he concluded.  Both men were principled, both were Zionists.  Neither was cowardly nor treacherous.  What is most remarkable is that neither saw the irony of their situation.

There were those who hoped that Rabin’s assassination would inspire soul-searching among religious and secular Zionists alike, leading both sides to repair the rift between them.  These hopes have gone unfulfilled, and this has led some to despair.  “A year has passed,” Rabin’s grandson said plaintively at Rabin’s grave on the anniversary of the assassination, “and nothing has changed.”

That nothing has changed, though, is not as surprising as the fact that anyone thought that it might.  People who believe that sad reflection in the wake of Rabin’s killing could, by itself, bridge the gap between secular and religious Zionists in Israel, wishfully ignored how deeply ingrained, how institutionalized, this gap really is.  Secular and religious Jews do not simply have different world-views; to a very real degree, they live in different worlds.  They attend different schools, they read different newspapers and books, they listen to different radio, lionize different heroes, recount different national histories, appreciate different art, celebrate different holidays, and much more.  In light of the many differences in the day-to-day lives of secular and religious Jews, the notion that they could overcome their differences through mere acts of will and contrition seems quaint and implausible.

The decision of whether to attend a religious or secular public school, determines far more for each Israeli child than simply how much Tanach they will learn, and how much art history.  Religious schools and secular schools embody very different attitudes and values.  This was illustrated by a remarkable study carried out by Yair Auron, and published in 1993 as a book called Jewish-Israeli Identity.  Auron and his team of researchers interviewed hundreds of men and women studying for teaching degrees in various teacher’s colleges throughout Israel.  They tabulated their findings according to the “stream” of education — secular public school, religious public school and “independent” Charedi school — in which the student planned to pursue her or his career.  The differences were dramatic:

“If you could be born again,” Auron asked, “would you want to be born Jewish?”

94% of the future teachers in religious public school said that they “very much” would.  Only 36% of the secular teachers felt the same.

“Does the fact that you are Jewish play an important part in your life?”

93% of the religious replied that it played a “very important” part, compared to 17% of secular teachers.

More than half of religious teachers saw the Exodus or the giving of the Torah as the most important events in Jewish history;  2% of secular teachers did.

84% of religious teachers believed that the existence of the State of Israel is justified because God promised the land to the Jews, while less than 6% of secular teachers believed this.

And the enormous differences in views continued, down the line.

Increasingly, religious and secular Zionists simply do not understand each other.

That students associated with religious public schools should have very different views from students associated with secular public schools is no surprise, when one thinks about it.  And it is less surprising still that student-teachers — who are both products and purveyors of the ideology of each stream — should have different views.

It is easy to overlook how truly distinct the two streams are.  Religious and secular children typically begin their different paths through Israeli public education in nursery school, often when they are as young as three.  The two streams of public school are supported by independent bureaucracies that produce independent curricula (though shared, national standards for some subjects do exist).  Extra-curricular programs, which play a particularly important role in Israel because the state funds far fewer hours of formal education than in most western nations, are designed independently within each stream (often within each school).  When students are encouraged to join youth groups, those in religious schools join religious groups — most often Bnei Akiva — and those in secular schools join secular groups.  In short, each student remains exclusively in his own stream at least until he is discharged from the army (and beyond, for those thousands who choose to continue their educations at Bar Ilan University, or at religious colleges).

One may object that the differences in the values and views of students are not a result solely of the educations they receive.  Children are not randomly distributed into either religious or secular public schools.  Children end up in whichever stream they end up in because their parents placed them there.  Schools in Israel reflect the values and views of a child, at least as much as they influence those values and views.  If there was a putsch in the Ministry of Education tomorrow, and the different streams were unified under a single curriculum, religious and secular Israelis would still come out wanting and believing widely divergent things.  These objections are perfectly true.  They are, in fact, my point:  Secular and religious Zionists in Israel inhabit largely different worlds.

Consider the example of Yom Kippur.  All traffic stops on Israel’s roads on Yom Kippur.  While religious Israelis are fasting and praying, secular children take to the empty streets on bicycles.  In recent years, it has become more common, in Tel Aviv at least, to see parents riding alongside their children.  Sometimes families pack a picnic and ride to the beach, making a day of it.  The shores of the Mediterranean, which until a decade ago were almost deserted on Yom Kippur, are now increasingly crowded.  A fracas resulted when Yael Dayan, a member of Knesset representing the Labor Party, was photographed in a bikini on the beach on Yom Kippur some years ago;  these days the same thing would probably go unnoticed.  “Yom Kippur is on the verge,” Yossi Melman has observed, “of becoming a day of national recreation.”

Perhaps it is for many secular Israelis, but it certainly is not for religious Israelis.  The mere apikorsut [heresy] of this situation is not particularly noteworthy;  there have always been apikorsim.  What is worth noting, is that even the holidays that secular and religious Israelis all celebrate, are less-and-less shared holidays.  This is certainly true of all “religious” holidays.  Among secular Israelis, Sukkot and Pesach are now the most popular seasons for discount junkets to Turkey and Paris;  less well-heeled Israelis drive to Eilat or to the Galil.  It is also true, increasingly, of the “national” holidays, as Yom HaAtzmaut in the settlements has become a celebration of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank, a meaning that is not lost on, but not shared by, many secular Jews in Tel Aviv.  The circle dances one sees in Hebron have little in common with the rock-n-roll in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv.  The national symbols and the national mythology that are bound up so tightly with national holidays now mean different things to different people.

But, again, more has been bifurcated than just symbols.  A religious Zionist might have a religious ATM card, belong to a religious HMO and a religious trade union.  S/he likely gives money to religious charities, might vacation at religious hotels and probably lives in a religious neighborhood.  A secular Zionist uses a secular bank, secular doctors, secular unions, gives to secular charities and lives in a secular neighborhood.  And while a secular Zionist reads the secular press, a religious Zionist may well read a religious newspaper.

This last point is crucial.  Since the beginning of the state, there have always been religious and secular newspapers.  Most papers in Israel trace their roots to one or another political party (most continue to this day to receive money from their “mother” parties, and to reflect the “party line” in their editorials and reportage);  religious parties quite naturally had religious papers.  Never, though, has the difference in the presentation of news — of ostensible “facts” — been greater between the religious and secular press.  A huge credibility gap has developed, with people increasingly believing only the accounts that their media provide.  This became clear last year, after Jerusalem police subdued several right-wing demonstrations in quick succession.  Government television and radio reported that demonstrators attacked police with rocks and bottles, and that a handful of demonstrators were bruised and scratched as they were subdued.  Xeroxed news briefs, written and distributed samizdat-style from Kiryat Arba, told of police atrocities:  pregnant women beaten with clubs, children trampled by horseback.  The right-wing pirate radio station, Arutz Sheva, repeated these reports, and taped hours of interviews with eyewitnesses.  A list-serve distribution network was set up on the Internet, to convey reports and other accounts of government activities “not reported in the government-controlled media.”  A friend from my father’s shul consoled him that, if my views were perhaps too leftist, it is because real information is suppressed by left-wing secular government apparatchiks.

Increasingly, then, religious and secular Jews in Israel have conflicting epistemologies, or notions of how and where “truth” can be discerned.  It is no longer the case that the religious and secular interpret the facts differently.  Each group increasingly has its own set of facts, and the overlap between what is deemed true by both groups diminishes steadily.

There will be those who say that it was always such, that religious and secular Jews always saw the world in very different ways.  This is clearly true to a degree, but it is also, to a greater degree, false.  Religious and secular Zionists always differed, but in the past, they also had more in common.  There was a greater shared sense of purpose when Rav Kook moved to Jaffa than when Rav Lau moved to Tel Aviv.  Hebrew University Professor Aviezer Ravitzky, who has thought as profoundly as anyone alive about relations among Jews of different religious outlooks, described the situation as such.  Religious Zionists in the past saw themselves as partners in two covenants:  a “covenant of faith” and a “covenant of fate.”  The covenant of faith reflects their commitment to Torah and halachah, which they shared with Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews throughout the world.  The covenant of fate reflects their commitment to rebuilding Israel, reishit tzemichat geulateinu, which they shared with secular Zionists.  Ravitzky has recently concluded — and in light of what I have written, I can only agree — that this second covenant is rapidly deteriorating.  One can no longer take for granted the notion that religious and secular Zionists have the same hopes and aspirations.  Each group is fighting to realize very different “fates.”

There are doubtless many reasons for this.  In large part, it owes to the exhaustion of secular Zionism itself.  As the ethos of most Israelis has shifted from commitment to corporate goals to the pursuit of individual goals, the very notion of any shared “fate” becomes eccentric.  Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, in a remarkable series of roundtable discussions published in 1993 as Kera bein Hakippot, compared secular Zionists to mules.  “A mule has the extraordinary power that comes from cross-breeding… But…it has no descendants and no continuation…. There is ‘secularization’ not just away from Judaism, but also from Zionism.  The second generation of secular Zionists rebelled from Zionism as well.”  As secular Israelis decreasingly share a vision among themselves, the likelihood of fashioning a shared vision with religious Zionists begins to vanish.

The suggestion that Israelis are divided into unitary religious and secular camps is an oversimplification and a distortion.

There are without doubt many other reasons for the collapse of the “covenant of fate”, and these reasons should be identified and studied closely.  But one need not wait for the scholars to analyze the complex causes of this collapse, to be deeply troubled by it.  Not because the decline of a single, totalizing shared Zionist ideology necessarily leads to the deterioration of civil society (as some Israeli publicists have argued).  Many liberal democracies thrive in the absence of a single “covenant of fate.”   Instead, what frightens me about the increasing bifurcation of Israeli society, is the fact that each camp is becoming more well-defined, and that the ties running between the two camps are relaxing.  There now seems to be an “us” and a “them” about almost every aspect of society — politics, art, media, religion, education, and on down the line.  And, increasingly, the “us” of one realm is coextensive with the “us” of other realms.  Tell me where a man davens and I’ll tell you where he sends his kids to school, what paper he reads, what movies he likes, where his radio dial is set, and for whom he voted.  This is a crass exaggeration, of course, but not as much of an exaggeration as it used to be.  It ignores countless important exceptions (the most important being the very sizable non-religious right in Israel), and it is far too totalizing.  Such a generalization makes it seem as though all secular Zionists agree among themselves about politics and culture, and that all religious Zionists agree among themselves.  This is an undeniably mistaken impression.  Still, and this is my point, it is equally undeniable that the culture of secular Zionists in Israel and the culture of religious Zionists are moving in different directions.

It is customary, and comforting, to end articles such as this with pieties and calls-to-arms.  But truisms like, “The Temple was destroyed for sinat achim” and “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh,” which exhort us to overlook parochial differences for the good of the whole, ignore the fact that there may no longer be any “whole.”  It may simply be a fact that the Zionist camp is splitting, and that this process cannot be undone.  Secular and religious Zionists may once have shared a covenant of fate.  With no common vision of that fate, and with precious few truly shared institutions to instill such a common vision, the very notion of such a covenant may now be little more than an occasion for nostalgia.

 Noah J. Efron is a post-doctoral fellow of the Rothschild/Yad Hanadiv Foundation and a research scholar at the Department of the History of Science of Harvard University.  He is presently completing a book about Jews, Christians and Natural Philosophy in Rudolfine Prague.

“Trembling with Fear:  How Secular Israelis See the Ultra-Orthodox, and Why,” Tikkun, 6:5, Sept.-Oct., 1991, pp.15-22,88-90.

This article was featured in the Spring 1997 issue of Jewish Action.
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