Our crisis affects all of Israeli society
By Yoel Bin Nun | 01/10/2009
“Part of the religious-Zionist public has already been swept up into Zionist ultra-Orthodoxy, and I doubt whether this process is reversible. Another, smaller segment is moving toward fanaticism. Yoel Bin-Nun settles accounts with religious Zionism and the secular Israeli elitesYoel Yoel Bin-Nun: The national-religious public's
Bin-Nun decision to integrate tradition and modernism and
Torah and Enlightenment was conditional.
Photo: Eyal Yitzhar
While the majority still tries to salvage national-religious integration, a strong and determined Haredi-Zionist minority is growing, and a considerable share of the younger generation is captivated by what it has to offer. The late Rabbi Neria once explained the essence of the matter to me: “If I had to choose, I would prefer for my children not to be able to eat at my house than for me not to be able to eat at theirs”
When faced with a major crisis or impasse, religious and ideological movements tend to split. This is a familiar phenomenon in the history of religions and ideological movements. The rupture of a single movement into a number of sects, denominations or churches generates enormous currents of energy that are channeled into sectarian divisions, with each splinter group filled with immense strength that it then uses to belittle and negate the other groups.
This phenomenon may embody a mechanism of self-survival. Perhaps the energies of negation help the various splinter groups to harness inner strengths that enable them to survive, even if their overall contribution is diminished.
In such a situation, the credo and identity of each faction is built upon the negation of the rival or rivals. However, when negation of the other becomes the core element of the group's self-identity, creativity and growth can be paralyzed, and all positive energy can be frozen. Hasidim and opponents of Hasidism, followers of the Haskala (Enlightenment) movement and Torah scholars, Orthodox and Reform Jews, Zionists and Diaspora Jews – all based their identities on the negation of their rivals: "Would it even cross your mind that I could live and behave like those other people?". This sort of statements, which send a message of contempt and scorn, or even loathing, serve as powerful fuel on both sides of the spectrum.
The main reason that Orthodoxy (modem Orthodoxy, too) has abstained from contending with grave issues of halakha (Jewish law) whose solutions are crucial for religious society and the entire Jewish people, is its fear of being perceived as "Reformist" by itself or others. On the other side of the fence, its aversion – to the point of loathing – to what they perceive as narrow-minded scholarship and fundamentalist fanaticism is a major component in the sensibilities and behavior of the various elements that consider themselves "enlightened”.
The movement that arose to ingather the exiles and establish a state is now splintering into one faction of aggressive post-Zionists and another of confused disciples searching for the right path. In the aftermath of the Holocaust and the encounter with anti-Semitism, ultra-Orthodox Jewry split into two: radical anti-Zionists, and the larger segment, which de facto joined forces with the Zionists. The Chabad movement, which tried to offer a 'redemption' alternative to Zionism, reached an impasse with the death of the late Lubavicher Rebbe, and split into two factions – the Messianists (who deny the Rebbe's death) and those that continue the previous Chabad course of action.
Gush Emunim founded a redemption movement within the Zionist movement, but now finds itself clashing with both the Palestinian reality and with the political solutions that the State of Israel has tried to implement from time to time. As a result, it is now splitting into two groups, one that espouses national interests and the supremacy of the state at any cost, and another that is rebelling against the authority of the state at almost any cost. Along with Gush Emunim and its most important accomplishment – the settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza – religious Zionism as a whole is splintering. This is a family in crisis!
The watershed came with the emergence about 20 years ago of a terror organization known as the "Jewish underground" that was exposed following a string of arrests and a trial. This clandestine organization evolved out of a desperate attempt to halt the withdrawal from Sinai, to stop Begin and Sharon in the previous round, and to prevent the destruction of the Yamit region. That is where it began.
I recall the discovery of the cell as a deeply traumatic experience. Still in a profound state of shock at the first arrests of the "best and the brightest" of the settlement community, and terrified that the entire settlement endeavor was on the verge of destruction, I was approached by the journalist Haggai Segal, who was then writing for the settler magazine Nekuda. He asked me to be interviewed for the state-owned Israel Radio, saying "You are the only one who can say anything that might save the settlement enterprise”.
I did not know then that Segal was himself mixed up in the underground and would be arrested a few days later. I never dreamed that some of my closest friends would soon be pushing Yesha (the Hebrew acronym for Judea, Samaria and Gaza) into the corner, as being "a potential threat to our democratic way of life and the future of the country”. Jewish settlements were uprooted, in part because of the Jewish terror we did not have the foresight to root out from among us, the thuggish behavior in Arab villages in Samaria and the Arab market in Hebron, the massacre of Muslims at the Cave of the Patriarchs, and a public atmosphere that made it possible for a contemptible murderer to believe he was serving the nation by assassinating the prime minister.
However, a large share of the religious-Zionist public blame s the state for everything and vehemently refuse to consider its own accountability. The closer the leaders of this community and its members get to violent fanaticism – which is what has distanced much of Israeli society from us for the past 25 years – the more they refuse to admit it.
Religious Zionism is splitting into factions as a result of its attitude to the state, to democracy and its significant faults, to the decision-making process and to the public in general. The internal schism, reflected in the refusal by some soldiers to follow orders as a matter of principle, versus the refusal by others to refuse orders, is now coalescing with an additional schism that has developed in recent years: the one within the national-religious public, which runs between tradition and modernism, Torah and Haskala, and religion and state.
A great fear
Ostensibly, the religious-Zionist public long ago broke away from the Haredi community on these issues, having decided in favor of the integration of tradition and modernism, Torah and Haskala, and religion and state. However, this was a conditional rather than an absolute decision – conditional until it could be proven that it is indeed possible to maintain integration of the various worlds without undermining the strength, depth or seriousness of the religious side of the equation. Many might say, and rightly so, that it has already been proven that this integration is possible, thanks to the religious-Zionist public and the magnificent institutions and outstanding individuals it has produced in recent generations, in both the yeshivas and the academic world.
However, a strong and forceful minority maintained that this integration was a failure. The Merkaz Harav yeshiva, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook's finest practical achievement (besides the institution of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel), split against the background of a request – which was never implemented – to introduce a teacher-training track into the yeshiva curriculum. This is commonly offered at many Hesder yeshivas (in which Judaic studies are combined with military service). Those who initiated the split, the partisans of the "Har Hamor" faction, likened the plan to attempts by Czarist authorities in Russia to force Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv) of Volozhin to introduce secular studies into the yeshiva of Volozhin, no less. The comparison highlights the extent to which their thoughts are mired deep in the Diaspora mentality, in stark contrast to Rabbi Kook and what he believed in. Those who choose to focus on the minutiae of halakha have become the generation's teachers, while the teachings and philosophy of Rabbi Kook now flourish in the religious academic world, of all places. Why has this happened?
One may be tempted to offer all sorts of explanations and lay the responsibility at the doorstep of the leaders and rabbis. In truth, however, what lies behind this development is a great fear. A careful reading of "The Just Shall Live by Their Faith" by Rabbi Zvi Israel Tau, which was published in an effort to explain and justify the split in Merkaz Harav, clearly shows that the leaders of Har Hamor who split from Merkaz Harav and established a yeshiva of their own were in fact seized by a terrible fear of general education and secularization. Rabbi Kook sought to eradicate this fear and show that worship of God is founded on faith in the overall unity of God and the general good, which necessarily follow from the belief in one God. But paradoxically enough, two generations later, some of his students' students are leading thousands of national-religious youth in the opposite direction. Fear of general education and secularization now impels religious life, driving a wedge between the two worlds.
Fanaticism also grows from fear – fear of uprooting and destruction, not only of settlements but also of a worldview and an entire movement; fear of genuine destruction that could sow even greater destruction in its wake. Is this fear truly unfounded? Moderate religious Zionism, which devotedly followed in the footsteps of general Zionism for two generations, paid a terrible price: a large number of its children (in particular, those of the 1948 generation) abandoned the path of religion and joined with secular Zionism. Secularization has struck even at the families of the most eminent rabbis. It is impossible to understand the strong trend toward Haredization on the part of some religious Zionists without recognition of this phenomenon. In the first generation, many of the new secularists came from Haredi homes.
The Haredim responded to this trend with aggressive, all-out isolation, and began to see the fruits of their labor. It stemmed secularization in their ranks, at least at the surface level. Self-confidence and joy were restored to the Haredi public. At the same time, many secular Jews either joined their ranks or alternatively, became anxious at the burgeoning growth of the Haredi sector. As Haredim began to feel more secure, secular Zionism began to lose its self-confidence.
The religious-Zionist community began to draw conclusions and move closer to a Haredi lifestyle. Many national-religious parents are willing to tolerate religious extremism, Haredization, even violent and dangerous fanaticism here and there - as long as they do not have to bear the shame of secularization that threatens the Jewish future of "our finest sons and daughters”. At a time when it seems as if the Haredim have gained the upper hand, it should come as no surprise that many people in the religious-Zionist community have begun to move in the direction of isolationism and are building up walls of fear, at times with their eyes wide open. While it is true that the majority is still trying to salvage national-religious integration, a strong and determined Haredi-Zionist minority is growing, and a considerable share of the younger generation is captivated by what it has to offer. The late Rabbi Moshe Zvi Neria once explained the essence of the matter to me: "If I had to choose, I would prefer for my children not to be able to eat at my house than for me not to be able to eat at theirs”.
Does secular Zionism consider religious Zionism a success story? After all, religious Zionism holds the key to integration between tradition and modernism, between observing the Torah and the commandments and building up the land with pioneering settlements and the army, higher education, science and the arts. On the face of it, the secular should have opted for religious Zionism over the Haredi alternative; young secular Jews would then face a tougher choice, between a religious Zionism and a secular Zionism, rather than between an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle and total nihilism. But in order to accomplish that, secular Zionism should have taken a completely different path from the one it chose.
At the time of its establishment, the leaders of secular Zionism thought they had no need for the wondrous synthesis offered by religious Zionism, and placed obstacles in its path wherever they could. Secular Zionism believed in its own strength, just as it had believed earlier in the "rising sun" of the socialist "future”. It chose to draw national-religious and Haredi youth into its ranks; it sought hegemony rather than integration and consensus.
Any concession made by the secular public for the sake of the common existence of the nation was gained only after considerable gritting of teeth and expressions of disgust over the so-called "religious coercion”. This is still the case. There is no parallel for an agreement that has been violated as much as the status quo that regulates religious-secular relations in Israel. Any concession on the part of the religious public is taken for granted, as conforming to the "spirit of the times”. But any concession on the part of the secular public becomes a pretext for mercilessly lashing out against the religious public, without the secular leadership or intelligentsia ever coming to its defense. Even today, now that secular Zionism has weakened and splintered into an aggressive post-Zionism and a traditional Zionism that lacks self-confidence even regarding family values, to say nothing of national or Zionist values, there is no evidence of any shift toward moderate religious Zionism and its solutions. We have been hearing praise and compliments for that brand of Zionism for many years from all sides, but no willingness to stand up to the radical secularists. And the proof may be seen in the controversy over the shopping malls and the erosion of the Shabbat (Sabbath) laws with the introduction of wide scale commerce on Shabbat.
Commerce on Shabbat unravels the shared fabric that still remains, splitting the nation even more than the destruction of settlements - but no one says a word. Where are the secularists who go out of their way to praise any concession on the part of religious Zionism? Where are all those who claimed they wanted a Shabbat of culture rather than one of shopping? Don't they know that ultimately religious and secular Jews will no longer be able even to work together? How many among the secular public are willing to stand up and come out against their good friends, as religious Zionist leaders have been doing for years?
If secular Zionism really wanted a bridge of true partnership with religious Zionism, it would behave very differently – so that even the younger generation would get the message. All too often, secular Zionists prefer to make political, cultural and budgetary deals with the Haredim at the expense of religious Zionism and its projects and values. In order to execute the Oslo agreements, the left forged a partnership with Shas; and we can see the same thing happening again now. David Ben-Gurion preferred to openly go to the Hazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, the leader of the Haredi community in the Land of Israel in the first half of the 20th century) instead of striving to reach an ideological-Zionist consensus with Rabbi Isaac Herzog, the then-Chief Rabbi of Israel - who was an outstanding liberal and man of science, in addition to his exceptional Torah erudition - the very embodiment of synthesis. At one time, I became convinced that the secular and the Haredim prefer one another. Sometimes it seems as if religious Zionism is perceived as a threat by both camps, and instead of serving as a bridge, it is plundered by both sides. The Haredim harvest the Torah scholars that our yeshivas have produced, and the secular pull the serious, questioning youth toward the secular extreme. Under these circumstances, the bridge cannot exist.
take the role
Most educators in the religious-Zionist world long ago gave up on the idea of a bridge, having realized that neither of the two extremes is really interested in it. On the other hand, since the Six-Day War they have believed in making a major contribution to settlement and security, in the struggle to reshape the state's borders. At long last, they had found the key to leading the state to a safer and more stable future. Religious Zionism would take this role upon itself.
Clearly, as in the kibbutz settlement movement of the previous generation, many mistakes were made. However, the supreme contribution made by religious Zionism to settlement and security in the generation following the Six Day War cannot be denied, and the military cemeteries can testify to this fact, as Ben-Gurion used to tell the pioneers of his generation.
One of the greatest miracles that has occurred in recent years is the proliferation of joint religious-secular study and reflection groups, as well as the pre-military academies, which have set a welcome process in motion. Our salvation may come from there. If Israel were to have a secular-Zionist leadership with a Jewish and Zionist orientation that blended tradition with progress, which would be able to shoulder the heavy burden together with the religious public, one hopes that both extreme secularization and isolationism could be stemmed, and that is a very cherished hope. I do not know if it is possible, but I believe in miracles and am willing to take on any emotional and intellectual challenge in order to make it happen.
Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun teaches at the Yaacob Herzog Institute