The Rabbi Writes – Zionism

Volume 33, No. 6, January 1997

1997 is an important anniversary for Jews. One hundred years ago-in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland-the Zionist movement was established by Theodore Herzl. Zionism is the most powerful and most successful Jewish movement of the twentieth century. The Jewish state is its incredible achievement. No other Jewish development has embraced so many Jews so passionately as has the Israel connection. If we add the revival of the Hebrew language to the accomplishments of Zionism, it emerges as one of the most significant forces for national liberation in the history of modern nationalism.

The victories of Zionism were won against overwhelming odds. A dispersed people were turned into a territorial nation within fifty years. Money was solicited-land was acquired-immigrants were recruited-communities were established-enemies were defeated-and a modern urban industrial state emerged from the desert. Even the agricultural sector was so successful that it became the producing ground of Israel’s military leaders.

From the beginning Zionism was essentially a secular enterprise. While the attachment to Palestine was reinforced by the Messianic fantasies of Orthodoxy, the determination to defy the “fates” and to establish a Jewish state through human effort came from the secular resistance to tradition. The overwhelming majority of the intellectuals, leaders, pioneers and activists of Zionism came out of the secular world. Antisemitism had driven many of them from assimilation to a militant nationalism. The Jewish state they envisioned had nothing to do with Torah Judaism. It was to be governed by the ideas and ideals of a secular nationalism. The Zionism of Herzl Nordau, Ben Gurion- and even Jabotinsky-promoted a secular Jewish state in which Jewish national identity was separated from religion, a state which granted equal status and equal freedom to the atheist and to the “believer?” It pioneered a secular Jewish culture in which the primary intention of Jewish identity was not Halakdic observance but was the use of the Hebrew language. In fact, the Jewish state would produce the “new Jew” who would be radically different from the pious Jew of the East European ghetto.

The Zionist founders imagined that the new Jewish homeland would become a role model for the development of an open democratic state in which non-Jews and national minorities would be accorded equal treatment to that of the “natives?” It would also put an end to antisemitism by terminating the Diaspora, normalizing the Jewish condition and removing the provocation of a “ghost people”.

But the founder’s vision ran into problems. While the early years of the Jewish settlement and the Jewish state were fairly secular the later years have been much less so. The later immigration was different from the early immigrants. The first pioneers were secular idealists who chose Palestine because they wanted to be a part of an important social experiment. They were willing to endure privation and suffering in order to realize their “dream.” In some ways they were secular “monks and nuns” whose ascetic lifestyle added to their moral purity and nobility. The later immigration was very different from the first. Most of the arrivals came because they had to, not because they wanted to. Many of them were religious. Many of them came from Oriental countries where the experience of a secular democracy was unknown. Many of them felt no ideological restraints on their prejudices and their hatreds. All of them came after the terrible Holocaust which crushed much of their naïve idealism of the past. All of them had to confront a never-ending war with the Arab world.

In time Israelis by birth replaced Israelis by choice. The native-born discovered that they were Israeli in the same way that they were native. Greeks discover that they are Greek. Israel was simply home-not a social experiment, not a utopian dream, not a role model to the world. Emigration began to match immigration. Materialism began to win out over self-imposed sacrifice. The consumer culture, with all its abrasiveness, took over the streets. It was the compensation for the annoying war that refused to end.

After the Six Day War new “idealists” arrived. They were ultra-Orthodox Jews who saw in the victorious Jewish state the hand of God. As the secularists became more clinical they became more passionate. Only this time the secular vision was replaced by a militant religious vision, a combination of the old Messianism and the new nationalism. The “idealistic” shoe moved to the foot of the old opposition. The new “ideal” was a Torah state run by Orthodox Rabbis and hostile to secularists and Arabs.

Today in Israel there is no secular state. The orthodox rabbinate governs Jewish marriage, divorce, and death and determines Jewish identity. Every Israeli is assigned to a religious group-Jewish, Muslim, Catholic etc- and to the control of an officially recognized clergy for each group. There is no civil marriage. There are no non-religious cemeteries.  There is no secular path to divorce. There is no universal Israeli identity. The only way to become a Jew in a state committed to the nationhood of the Jewish people is to be converted by an Orthodox rabbi.

Today in Israel the original secular culture is being compromised. The state schools are under the control of an Orthodox minister of education. Ever since the Likud assumption of power in 1977 the teaching of the Bible in the schools has fallen into the hands of traditional people. Religious values and Israeli patriotism are becoming inseparable. Increasingly in Israel, being secular simply means not being Orthodox.

Today in Israel the grandchildren of the pioneers have joined the consumer culture. The old idealism has been replaced by a quite normal and quite pervasive ambition to live more comfortable. The ironic twist is that the people non-willingly to make “sacrifices” for their ideals are the Orthodox.

Today in Israel there are both ethnic bigotry and antisemitism. The conflict with the Arabs has produced a level of mutual hatred and suspicion unmatched in many other countries. This war has also turned the Muslim world into a hotbed of fanatic Jew hatred. The Zionist dream of eliminating antisemitism has failed. It may be the case that the peace process will inevitably win out, simply because it is unavoidable and because external pressures will be overwhelming. But the gradual, yet dramatic, reversal of Zionist culture will continue. Both the orthodox birth rate and secular emigrating will reinforce that development. As Israel approaches its 50th birthday anniversary, the new Israel, is vastly different from that of the Zionist pioneers. The secular forces are no longer in charge. They are on the defensive and they will need the help of secular North America to defend themselves in the cultural war that is looming. Zionism pioneered a new secular way to be Jewish. We must do whatever we can to support the beleaguered heirs of that vision.

The Rabbi Writes – Jerusalem, October 1992

Volume 29, No. 5, December 1992

The Fourth Biennial Conference of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews

It was a memorable event. Delegates from nine countries assembled in the Khan theater to proclaim the commitment to a cultural Judaism without God. It was obvious that progress had been made during the last six years, ever since our first meeting in Detroit in 1986. We had increased in number. We had defined our ideology. We had elevated our visibility in the Jewish world. We had created an international Institute to train the leaders and educators we so desperately needed.

“On the way“ to Jerusalem we had met in Brussels in 1988 and in Chicago in 1990. At each of these events we sought to reinforce the purpose of the Federation. We wanted to bring together all the secular and humanistic Jews in the world and make them part of one movement. We wanted our voice and our presence to be recognized and acknowledged. We wanted to do together what we would not be able to do alone.

There were many highlights of the conference.

There was the Khan Theater, a Jerusalem landmark, Filled with people, many of them young, eager to identify with the cause of a cultural Judaism.

There was the babble of tongues – Hebrew, English, Russian, French and Italian – that made you feel the truly international character of our movement and gave the moment the excitement of diversity.

There was Naomi Hazzan, Member of Parliament, friend of Shulamit Aloni, fiery defender of the separation of religion and government, calling for the end to the wicked regime of Orthodox control over Israeli life.

There was Yizhar Smilansky, Famous poet and writer, tall, white- haired and charismatic delivering his impassioned denunciation of racism and militarism by rewriting the book of Joshua and reciting the text in staccato and relentless outbursts.

There was Haim Cohn, former senior judge of the Israeli Supreme Court, revered jurist and civil libertarian, Honorary president of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, receiving his award as our role model Humanistic Jew and offering a clear and unequivocal call for rational enlightenment in Jewish life.

There was the arrival of the delegates from the former Soviet Union, pioneers of Humanistic Judaism in the secular Jewish world of Eurasia, sharing with the crowd at the incredible success of their efforts in towns and cities of Russia and the Ukraine, speaking of the amazing possibilities for our movement in these newly opened lands.

There was the meeting with the Russian immigrants who have come to Israel, hundreds of them, who have found an intellectual and spiritual home and Humanistic Judaism, Who were filled with endless questions about what we do in North America.

There was Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Yekutieli, descendent of a prominent Iraqi family and militant secularist, who told us about his victories against Orthodox intimidation in his city of yeshivas and about how it was possible for determined humanists to mobilize their followers successfully in defence of their civil rights.

There was Danny Garbarz of Paris, university student and leader of the French youth movement for Humanistic Judaism, Energetic and brilliant, who shared with us his plans to mobilize Jewish young people all over the world for a secular commitment to Jewish identity.

There was Meron Benvenisti, Controversial writer, intellectual and former political leader, who boldly proclaimed at a celebration luncheon for the 25th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem that there was nothing to celebrate, that Jerusalem remained hopelessly divided between Jews and Arabs and that only a piece which involved ethnic equality, mutual respect and the sharing of land would really work.

There was the intimate closing session when we explored together the texts of the new Secular Humanistic Anthology, tasting the words of Spinoza, Einstein and Tchersiklovsky and experiencing the excitement of finding our place and the tradition of Jewish inspiration.

There was the special moment in the kibbutz library of Aryeh Ben Gurion, Nephew of the first prime minister of the Jewish state, all of us standing before the documents and books which represented eighty years of secular Jewish celebration in the world of kibbutz life, And realizing the vast wealth of Jewish creativity that lay at the foundation of our movement.

There were too many high points to record. But all of them were part of a significant series of events that made up this conference.

For the first time Secular Humanistic Judaism received considerable attention from the Israeli press and media. The visibility of the movement took a quantum jump before the eyes of the Israeli public.

For the first time the vast region of Eurasia entered our movement. The Jews of the former Soviet Union, by virtue of 75 years of secular education, are an enormous pool of potential members and workers for our movement. Many Jews will leave the area. But most will stay. And if they want to be Jewish, Humanistic Judaism is the best and most honest way for them to express their Jewish identity. The Federation published a statement to that effect.

For the first time the Federation held a meeting in an Israel which was no longer under the control of a government beholden to the orthodox fundamentalists. Rabin is in power. And two of the founding members of the Israeli Humanistic Jewish movement, Shulamit Aloni and Yair Tsaban now hold important posts in the government. Their enemies have made an issue of their secularism. But they are determined to use their influence to resist the forces of religious reaction and self-ghettoization in the Jewish state.

We have every reason to feel optimistic about our movement, despite the power and determination of our opposition. Hopefully, the Spirit of the Jerusalem conference will serve to make us bolder and more assertive. WE have an important message for the Jewish world. Our solidarity with Humanistic Jews around the world will make it louder and clearer.

Shulamit Aloni

The Jewish Humanist, May/June 1993

SHUALMIT ALONI IS COMING! YOU WILL NOT WANT TO MISS HER!

Aloni is the leader of the Meretz coalition in the Israeli Knesset She is the controversial Minister of Education and Culture, whose defense of a secular state has aroused the passionate hostility of the ultra-Orthodox. Over the past few months a public battle has been waged between liberals and religious conservatives over her membership in the Israeli government. The Orthodox want her head. The moderates see her as the one guarantee that the present regime will defend civil liberties and begin to dismantle the state support of traditional religion. This controversy has been featured on the front pages of most newspapers and given Aloni international fame.

Shula is a native Israeli who grew up in Jerusalem. Her early years were the formative years of the Jewish state. Reared in the secular Zionism of the Zionist pioneers, she hoped that the state of Israel would fulfill the humanistic dreams of the founders. To her dismay the Labor government of David Ben-Gurion compromised these ideals for political expediency and turned over the regulation of family life to the Orthodox. Her response to this betrayal was not the cynical resignation of most Labor politicians, but open defiance. She committed her life to politics, to feminism, to personal freedom and to the defense of the liberal democratic tradition of the modern Enlightenment.

This defiance was not easy. Given her talents and charisma, she could have, with little effort, achieved political power If had been willing to compromise the Integrity of her ideals. Her punishment was that she was banished by the leaders of the Labor Party to the periphery of Israeli political Golda Meir, in particular, was incensed her disobedience and by her embarrassing persistence. Golda, as Aloni points out, saw herself as the ultimate Jewish mother of the Jewish nation, whose children were not as wise as she was. When she encountered political resistance, especially within her own camp, her response could be ruthless. Golda believed that pursuing the cause of either feminism or civil liberties was a harmful division from the main task of Unifying the Israeli people in defense of the Jewish state against the Arab aggressors.

Shula expressed her defiance in many ways. She wrote books and newspaper articles and hosted a provocative radio show. She counseled the marriage and divorce victims of Orthodox law, finding creative ways for secular Jews to avoid Orthodox jurisdiction. She became a consumer advocate, mobilizing thousands of followers to press for domestic reform. She was elected to Knesset where she remained, for a long time, a sole advocate for women’s rights and Separation of religion and government. She organized a new political party, the Citizens Rights Movement (Ratz), which provided a clear public voice for the elementary personal freedom which we in America take for granted. For over a decade she was treated as a political pariah, a solo prophetic voice in a sea of cynics and chauvinists. But, in the last election, her party helped to create a coalition of the liberal left – Ratz and Mapam and Shinui – which named itself Merétz and went on to win ten seats in the Knesset. With Meretz, the Labor Party and Rabin were able to unseal the Likud and to achieve political supremacy. Aloni’s reward was the Ministry of Education and Culture, a crucial ministry which had been under Orthodox control in the previous government and which had wrought havoc with the secular curriculum of the state schools. The battle lines were now drawn, especially when she proclaimed that feministic values needed to re-enter the Israeli school system. She has now become the chief target of Orthodox hate. Even Rabin has wavered in support of her and has tried to censor her.’ Power has brought her no relief from continuous assault.

Now Shula is more to us than a brave Jewish defender of freedom and human dignity. She is the longtime friend of the Birmingham Temple and one of the founders of the Humanistic Jewish movement in Israel.

We first met her in 1979 when she consented to come from Israel to be our special guest at the annual meeting of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Her appearance was transforming. The rapport between her and her American audience was electric. We loved her from the start. And she loved us.

In 1981, enthusiastic about the prospects For Humanistic Judaism in Israel, she helped to organize a dialogue between secular Jews from America and secular Jews from Israel at Shefayim, a seaside kibbutz north of Tel Aviv. Many important Israeli intellectuals and writers attended. Within two years the Israeli Association for Secular Humanistic Judaism was born.

Shula’s coming is part of our celebration of our Temple’s thirtieth birthday anniversary. One of the best things that has happened to us in the past thirty years is that we made the Shula connection. Her participation in our celebration is testimony to the fact that Humanistic Judaism has an important part to play In the Jewish world.

Israel at 50

The Jewish Humanist, May/June 1998

 

Israel is fifty years old. But the birth day ‘party’ is not as festive as many Israelis and Jews would want it to be. The American government is not very happy.

After fifty years of independence and one hundred years of Zionism the state of Israel can boast some extraordinary achievements. It has molded a new Jewish ethnicity, a blending of European and Oriental Jews. It has transformed ancient Hebrew into the unique language of the Jewish State. It has developed a viable economy of farming and manufacturing which has brought Israel into the ‘first world’. It has fashioned democratic political institutions, which are imperfect, but which allow for a high level of personal freedom. It has created a stunning military, which wields a power out of proportion to its numbers. It has even forged a long-lasting alliance with America, the leading military and economic power in the world.

It has also experienced some significant failures. The losses of the Yom Kippur War and the Lebanon War embarrassed the Israeli army. The dichotomy between the living standards of European and Oriental Jews breeds resentment. The unique farm experiment of the kibbutzim is collapsing into socialist failure. The laws of the Jewish State ironically deny full religious freedom to Jewish alternatives to Orthodoxy and compound the inequity with large subsidies to orthodox institutions. The secular character of the early Israeli State has been replaced by the growing presence of aggressive religious fundamentalists. The enthusiastic support of American Jews, the largest and, most powerful Jewish community in the world, has been compromised by the refusal of the Israeli government to resist the demands of ultra-Orthodox Jews who despise the liberal Judaism of the United States. The economic and political status of Israeli Arabs remains inferior to that of Israeli Jews; Above all, the acquisition of new land in the Six-Day War triggered Palestinian nationalism and Palestinian rebellion.

Even the alliance with America has become a troubled connection. The fall of Communism removed the attractiveness of the Israeli military as a bulwark against Soviet expansion and the Arab allies of the Soviet Union. America now wanted to woo the Arab world as a counter-force against the new danger of Muslim fundamentalism pouring out of Iran. The vested interests of the United States began to clash with the vested interests of the Jewish State. Certainly the Gulf War demonstrated the necessity of winning the support of moderate Arab regimes.

Most of the old Israeli establishment, the leaders of the Labor party, read the ‘handwriting on the wall’ and were willing to yield to American pressure, and to make an accommodation with the Palestinians and the moderate Arab world. Their decision was reinforced by the continuing problem of Palestinian resistance in the occupied territories, the war exhaustion of the Israeli public, the vision of an economic opening to the Arab world and the anxious desire to preserve the Jewishness of the Jewish State by excluding the Arab presence. It was also clear that no peace could exist with the Arab world so long as the conflict with the Palestinian Arabs continued. The popular leader of this ‘peace’ faction was Yitzhak Rabin. The assassination of Rabin effectively undermined the power of the accommodationists.

Today the extremists, who are determined to resist all American pressure, are in charge. They are an odd coalition, united by their hatred of the old Labor establishment. They include conservative military officers, secular chauvinists, Orthodox Jews, Oriental Jews from the Muslim world, and recent Russian immigrants. Their leader is Benjamin Netanyahu, the present Prime Minister of Israel. They view any surrender of territory to the Palestinians or to other Arabs as subversive of Israeli survival.

Their power is reinforced by periodic Arab terrorism and the ambivalence of many Israelis about the risks of territorial concessions. Despite scandals and defections, the coalition is holding its own.

The real power of this new coalition lies in the changing demographics of Israel. In 1998 Israel is no longer what it was in 1948, a secular European state. Over the past fifty years Oriental Jews and Jewish religious fundamentalists have entered the Israeli scene in large numbers and transformed it. They do not wish to make any meaningful concessions to the Arab world. They want peace; but they do not want to pay the price for peace.

The Israeli people have two choices. They can continue to support the present government, subvert the peace process and alienate the American establishment. Or they can repudiate the Netanyahu regime, continue meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians and other Arab nations, and cooperate with Egypt and Jordan in their resistance to religious fundamentalism.

The vested interests of the United States in the Middle East demand that the peace process continue. The collapse of the peace process will promote support for radical Arab regimes like Iraq, and religious extremism. Neither consequence serves the long run interests of America or the maintenance of law and order in the global economy.

The future is up to the Israeli people. They have to make the fateful decision. Arafat may not be the most attractive or reliable ‘ally’ for the Israeli public. But he is preferable to the storm of fanatics who will follow his downfall.