The next Sebastia must be a social Sebastia
By Hili Tropper | 01/10/2009
“The struggle over the country's borders is not over. Still, it is hard to deny the historical turnaround that has taken place. The ideological, educational and especially the practical vacuum has quickly filled with new content.” Hili Tropper takes a look at the future State of Israel, one in Photo: Angelmayer
which religious Zionism invests
all its energy on matters of social justice
The current scene reveals a religious-Zionist landscape of desert and desolation, alongside broad vistas of social problems in Israel society at large
For many years now, some will say since the establishment of the state, the issue of social justice has been pushed to the margins of the Israeli discourse and to the margins of social and political activity. Under the pretext of a preoccupation with pressing security concerns and the worn argument that “while people are being killed and territory is being conceded, we cannot talk about social rights”, hundreds of thousands of victims of the declining state of social justice are neglected. At the same time, the debate on society's ethics and values, and on the future Jewish identity of the State of Israel, is ignored.
As a full and active decision-making partner in the Israeli leadership for the past half-century, the religious-Zionist public has barely addressed this matter. True, its sons went to yeshivas in the geographical periphery and set up educational projects in socioeconomically distressed areas, but even when this community expanded its field of activity beyond the issue of settlement, it was usually an exercise in considering Israel's Jewish identity in its narrow and one-dimensional connotation: debates over the public display of leavened bread on Passover, religious revival efforts, appointments of religious judges and rabbis, makeup of religious councils, etc. As far as this public is concerned, questions of social justice, human rights and social problems are not part of the struggle for the state's Jewish identity.
Desert and desolation
The first signs of an addressing of these issues by religious leaders have appeared of late, and until not long ago, the minister of social welfare was a representative of the National Religious Party. But the social flag of religious Zionism remains folded up tightly, and no leader has yet stepped forward to shake off the dust and wave it with pride. Not as lip service, not on the eve of an election campaign or as a second thought, but as a raised flag, as primary and not secondary, at the center and not the margins, as something critical to our existence.
The current situation reveals a religious-Zionist landscape of desert and desolation, alongside broad vistas of social problems in Israeli society at large. On the one hand, those for whom this issue is important and is an integral element of their Jewish and human identity are apt to sink into despair. On the other hand, the situation holds out immense potential, of the sort that developed into the settlement enterprise after the Six-Day War. A rare window of opportunity is opening to the religious-Zionist public: an opportunity to inject a moral, ethical, Jewish voice into the vacuum of values in which Israeli society now finds itself.
It is hard to imagine what will happen to the sons and daughters of religious Zionism, and to the State of Israel as a whole, if they choose not to carry the social flag. It is a little less hard to imagine what is likely to happen if religious Zionism accepts the challenge. Less hard, because the religious public has proven in the past its ability to shape reality and alter the social agenda. If religious Zionism chose to direct its immense resources to a profound, broad-based effort to address issues of workers' rights, socioeconomic gaps, care for the handicapped, integration in the educational system, poverty and trafficking in women, then Israel could possibly become not only a safe haven for Jews, but also a Jewish state, in the full sense of the word.
If this vision were realized, we might discover that the struggle for the Jewish identity of the state in effect ended with the “victory” of religious Zionism, the source of which would come from unexpected quarters. By making the impressive passage from realization of the vision of Theodor Herzl to realization of the vision of Ahad Ha'am, the State of Israel would come to be governed by the inspiring ethics and values advocated by the prophets. The millennia-old dream of the Jewish people would become reality. The goal toward which Zionism has always strived would materialize before our eyes, as if by miracle. And it would not come to pass by virtue of a Zionist religious revival (per Rav Kook) or due to accelerated religious legislation, but as a result of the choice to carry the social flag.
Turning to new horizons
Pretentiousness aside, let us imagine a futuristic gathering of religious leaders at some point in the mid-21st century. One speaker would be bitterly complaining about all those “lost years”, missed because of futile attempts to shape the Jewish character of Israel through attempts to promote a religious lifestyle or through empty political threats. Another speaker would nostalgically recall the struggle that over the years came to be known as “the social Sebastia” (a reference to the site where the post-1967 settlement movement began), an uncompromising struggle against the miserable conditions of workers employed through manpower companies. The Western Wall plaza would be filled with masses of worshippers coming to protest against the harsh economic decrees that caused people to lose their homes after they were exploited by the banks, which in turn created intolerable socioeconomic gaps that tore apart the fabric of Israeli society. Immediately afterward, it would be reported that tens of thousands of people had converged in Rabin Square to protest the held-over wages of local authority workers. A human chain would be formed, stretching from Dimona to the Knesset, with the demonstrators demanding that a proper basket of government-subsidized medicines be guaranteed to Israel's ill, and a life of dignity to the elderly.
These future leaders of the national-religious public would glumly recall the tough times, days of bewilderment and deviation from the course that came in the wake of the significant changes in the geographical borders of the State of Israel, but they will take comfort in the ensuing wave of engagement in social issues. This wave developed out of the enormous void of values from which not only the religious-Zionist public suffered, but all of Israeli society.
The struggle over the country's borders is not over. Nor has the mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel ceased to be at the hub of the religious world. Still, it is hard to deny the historical turnaround that has taken place. The ideological, educational and especially the practical vacuum has quickly filled with new content. The eternal triangle of People of Israel, Torah of Israel and Land of Israel remains as it was; only its vertices have inverted. The tremendous strengths and resources of the national-religious public have been directed to new horizons. Educators are working hard to pass on the message to the young generation: the geographical change does not mean, God forbid, a retreat or deviation from the process of redemption that began in the 1880s.
True, the vacuum of ideals and values extended beyond the religious public. The neo-liberal social and economic doctrine had been widely embraced, having been represented as a wonder drug for the shaky Israeli economy. One consequence of adopting this worldview, which few people regarded as especially significant, was the elimination of any discussion of ethics from the discourse. For the first time since the establishment of Israel, perhaps for the first time in the history of the Jewish people, ethical considerations carried little weight. Everyone spoke in terms of costs and benefits, and of requisite growth. Discussion of ethical and moral, and even of Jewish values grew obsolete.
From out of this void, the social flag was suddenly raised on high. No longer as lip service, but as a distinct, clear, real voice. A voice that emanated from passionate faith. A voice that perhaps only an organized, believing public could produce.
The religious leadership deliberately chose to walk this path. This choice had many far-reaching implications, internal and external alike. A perplexed public that had wavered at the crossroads was given an opportunity to demonstrate new vitality; it could now follow new channels of involvement and investment. New values were infused into the already-existing effort to “conquer Israel”, through which many in the religious-Zionist sector had merged into the Israeli mainstream, for instance by enlisting in elite army units or entering politics or the media. Now the religious public understood that there was an opportunity to genuinely influence the value system, priorities and character of the State of Israel, and it took advantage of the opportunity to “conquer Israel” on a deeper and more profound level.
Religious youth in search of a meaningful lifestyle were offered another option besides that of living on isolated hilltops, which offered them a direct connection to the land. These young people could now enjoy a full, rich lifestyle, one that could include a dogged struggle on behalf of workers' rights, access for the handicapped or integration in the educational system.
But the new emphases championed by the religious-Zionist public had far-reaching implications on, most notably, its attitude toward the State of Israel as a whole. From a cloistered public that was sometimes portrayed as radical and dangerous, it became an integral part of the Israeli public and a group that was recognized as having strong influence on the development of Israeli society. But more than anything else, the religious-Zionist public succeeded in making Judaism accessible to all. For instance, the kashruth certificate, which had in the past symbolized the debasement and bureaucratization of religion, has become a desirable ethical commodity. It is no longer only a measure of the method of slaughter and the separation of milk and meat; the considerations now taken into account include a ban on the force-feeding of geese for reasons of preventing cruelty to animals, the obligation to pay workers in cafés and wedding halls fair wages, and on time, and the obligation to facilitate access by the handicapped to these establishments. Any place of business that does not meet these requirements is no longer considered “kosher”. Kashruth, like Judaism as a whole, has now become more relevant and broad-spectrum than ever before.
Let's go back to the present. I recently came across some Lubavitch hassidim who were inviting passersby to put on phylacteries. Hanging above them was a large outdoor advertisement for a manpower company, which by failing to provide basic social benefits to its workers is creating a modem slave market. In a flash of awareness, there on the noisy Jerusalem street, I suddenly gained a clear image of the great opportunity that was being missed here.
Why? Because lately – perhaps due to the crisis in the settlement enterprise – key circles in the religious-Zionist world are going into the religious revival field, in which they promote Orthodox Judaism to secular Israelis. By adopting techniques that until recently were alien to religious Zionism (such as putting on phylacteries in city streets and distributing Sabbath candles with cheerfully worded explanations), religious Zionism seeks to influence Israeli society and Israeli identity. This phenomenon merits much contemplation, as it has become relatively widespread. But we do not need a pale imitation of Lubavitch. Is it conceivable that Judaism will choose not to battle corruption, callousness, ruthlessness and other symptoms of social rupture? Is it possible to define a country in which these profound social ills are part and parcel of its existence as a Jewish state?
This approach is also justified from the tactical aspect. At present, it is hard to name another group in Israeli society that could spearhead a drive to reshape it into a just and worthy society, and it appears that only around this issue could a broad coalition capable of I facilitating this change be formed. This is the only way in which Judaism can become relevant and serve as a proper social model to those who wish to effect change.
Before concluding, I wish to qualify the remarks made above by stating the obvious: I recognize that Israeli society suffers from too many serious illnesses to be healed by a single wonder drug. Therefore, even the most intense engagement in the issue of social justice would not provide a comprehensive solution to society's ailments. At the same time, it would in a very real way address a large share of the problems. Raising high the social flag is both a challenge and an opportunity for religious Zionism. A few years from now, we will know if it responded to the challenge or passed up the opportunity, thereby failing to realize the great hope for social change and for a Jewish revolution.
Hili Tropper is a social activist from and a teacher