Project of IISHJ

Secular Humanism in Israel

Humanistic Judaism, Summer 1982, (vol. 10 no. 1, p43-46)

The Shefayim Conference in October, 1981 was the beginning of a long process of exploration, dialogue, and cooperation.

Secular and humanistic Jews from North America and from Israel came together to discuss what it means to be both Jews and secular humanists. This meeting was the first dialogue in Israel where the focus on a secular Jewish identity was separated from the political controversies of socialism and Zionism. In the past, secularism was identified with the program of the socialist left. Whatever bourgeois secularists were around viewed it as a logical consequence of the development of a modern Jewish nationalism. Activists opposed to religious coercion saw it as a civil liberties issue and not as the creation of an alternative philosophy of life.

The October Conference was, therefore, treading on new ground. A humanistic Judaism which did not have firm connections to political parties and which proposed to develop a clear philosophic alternative to religious Judaism was a novelty, even a luxury. The very nature of Israeli culture and problems had given this opportunity neither clarity nor urgency.

The Shefayim meeting was short, only two days. It included some people who were interested in humanism, but not Jewish identity. It excluded many secular Jewish leaders who were unknown to us (some of whom later signed the Conference statement). There were political leaders like Shulamit Aloni, the founder of the Citizens Rights Movement, Meir Pail, a spokesperson for the Sheli doves, and Mordecai Wiskurski, a parliamentary delegate from centrist Shimui. There were academicians like Gershon Weiler, author of a definitive work on the secular state, and Uri Rapp, Tel Aviv sociologist and civil libertarian. There were writers like essayist Yigal Elam, playwright Yehudah Sobel, and journalist Mendel Kohansky. There were activists from the small Israeli secular humanist movement like Yitshak Hasson and Gabriel Glaser.

Although time did not allow for a full discussion of basic philosophic issues, the brevity was desirable. The meeting was intended to be only a preliminary to a longer conference to be held in the summer of 1983. This conference enabled us to understand who needed to be involved in the forthcoming meeting and what important issues needed to be discussed.

Out of the Shefayim meeting came an Organizing Committee for a Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews and a short statement to stimulate interest in what we were striving to do. The statement (see Declaration of Principles) included affirmations of our belief in human reason, human autonomy, human dignity, the centrality of Israel and the secular state. It enabled many Jewish secularists who did not attend the Conference to sign their approval.

The Conference also permitted us North Americans to see clearly the secular scene in Israel. We discovered that many of the conditions we already suspected to be real were really real. And that many of the situations we never imagined to be true were also real.

What did we discover?


Unlike the rest of the world, organized humanistic Judaism in Israel is a rural phenomenon, built on the community life of the secular kibbutzim. With the exception of one congregation in Haifa, secular humanism as a viable movement is confined to rural settlements. The situation is a delicious irony, given the origins of our philosophy. And the question arises whether, after the urban intellectuals who founded the kibbutzim die out, the commitment to a rational Jewish identity is sustainable. Already nature mysticism and religious revivals are beginning to emerge in formerly fanatic secular settings.


The kibbutz community has been the only place where secular Jews in Israel have been free from religious coercion (except with marriage and divorce) and religious intrusion. For the past seventy years they have been involved in revising old holidays, inventing new ones and developing a humanistic life cycle ceremonial pattern. My visits to the archives at Ramat Yohanan and Beit Ha-Shitta were the highlights of my post-Conference experience in Israel. But most of this material has, unfortunately, not been made available to the Diaspora Jewish public.


Most of the Jews in Israel do not see themselves as religious in the conventional sense. But they do not have a high awareness of their being secular either. While they resent religious coercion, they find it difficult to separate religious behavior and religious leadership from Jewish identity. They become secular only when the rabbis oppress them.


Secular Jews in Israel have never experienced any kind of organizational unity. Political differences have made cooperation impossible. Secular nationalists and secular liberals dislike secular socialists. Jabotinsky, the mentor of Begin, hated Marxism more than religion. And Chaim Weizmann, the paragon of bourgeois Zionism, preferred respectable bourgeois company to authentic communists. As for the socialists, they adore division. From the very beginning the pro-Bolsheviks and the anti-Bolsheviks split the socialist camp and, even though any form of pro-Russian sentiment is now academic in the face of the obvious Soviet hostility to the Jews, a lifetime of division builds its organizational fences and emotional resentments.


It seems funny to find anti-Zionist secular Jews in Israel (the religious fanatics like the Neturei Karta have been well-publicized). But there are some. The current president of the Israeli Secular Humanist association is one of them. Although he represents a minority in his own small organization, he does articulate an existing secular alternative. The anti-Zionists are pure humanists. They believe that Israel should be a normal state for all its citizens whether of Jewish or Arab origin; and that it should cease to be a vicarious state for the Jewish Diaspora. One identity, Israeli identity, should prevail. One secular Israeli community should be developed. Religious and ethnic identities should be private matters. The state should serve all “humans” equally. Under this ideology, Jewish identity becomes Hebrew speaking Israeli identity. American Jews who are secular humanists are of no greater importance to Israeli humanists than American secular humanists who are not Jews. Zionism is passe. There should be one Israeli humanism including Arabs and Jews. Ethnic humanism is not an Israeli need.


Most secular Jews in urban settings (and most Israelis are urban) have not been motivated to defend their integrity and to create ceremonial alternatives like the kibbutzim. Since they lack community structures they yield to what is available. Circumcision, Bar Mitsva, marriage and burial are the exclusive preserve of religious functionaries. While they mock these people and express their contempt for them they use them. Even though the state only dictates marriage and divorce procedures, they conform on all ceremonial levels. What has developed is very unattractive: grumbling and surrender. Only the one congregation in Haifa is trying to provide some integrity by creating a supportive urban community.


Israeli secularism has a negative edge. It knows what it does not like. It is not quite sure what it does like. Anti clericalism has been the historic beginning of all religious movements. Resistance to religious coercion is the initial fuel. But it cannot stop there. The defense of the secular state cannot be a philosophy of life. It only has enemies, no heroes. Too many Israeli secularists survive on the philosophic stimulation of their European backgrounds and arrange to leave nothing to their children. Fighting religious intrusion into the state schools is useless unless one has a clear positive passionate philosophy to fight back with. Humanism is more than holding fundamentalists at bay. It has a literature. It has heroes. It has roots in Jewish history. It needs pizzazz and exposure.


The old nationalism, including the conservative Jabotinsky type, was anti-religious, because the orthodox rabbinate was overwhelmingly opposed to Zionism. But the new Begin type nationalism is pro-religious because the Bible and rabbinic ideology justify territorial expansion. There has been a gradual shift in the attitudes of the Israeli establishment. Even devout secularists like David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir began to change in their old age for political reasons. They saw religion as a re-enforcer of patriotism. Many young people in Israel today, who did not grow up in the cosmopolitan milieu of their parents and grandparents and who see themselves as defenders of Israeli Territorial survival are ambivalent secularists. They are drawn to what is politically useful and are seduced by it.


Many secular Jews in Israel are confused by the meaning of their Jewish identity. If it is not a religious designation, how does it differ from plain old Israeli identity? However, if Arabs can be Israelis, what do we call the other variety? If speaking Hebrew is the main sign of Jewish secular identity, how does one deal with a non-Hebrew speaking Diaspora? Confusion reigns, especially since most Jews live outside the state of Israel, and especially since Israel is the only nation in the world to have been created by its own expatriates. Replacing Jewish identity with Israeli identity is not as easy as some early Zionist secularists once thought.

These discoveries were real eye-openers. They dispelled the romantic myths so many of us Jewish humanists grew up with about the success story of secular Zionism. What we gradually came to realize was that we were both, Israelis and North Americans, struggling with the same issues and that all the good answers were on the Israeli side.

What can be done to strengthen secular Judaism in Israel – and elsewhere in the world? The mutual discovery and sharing has just begun. What can we do to create more self-awareness, more cooperation, more solidarity?

Well, we need another conference, a longer one. This conference should be a joint venture of secular and humanistic Jews in North America and elsewhere in the Diaspora, the secular kibbutz movement in Israel, and secular Zionist groups. It should include the leading spokespeople for a secular humanism with Jewish identity. It should be broad in its scope, enabling nationalists, socialists and bourgeois liberals to talk to each other about shared secular issues. Its agenda should provide in-depth discussions of the meaning of Jewish identity, the purpose of life, ethical decision making, the role of the family, responses to death, the nature of the secular state, holidays and life cycle ceremonies, and the creation of new communities. We need a new book to dramatize our Jewish alternative for the Jewish public. This book should appear in both Hebrew and English. It should have no single author. It should be a collection of essays by the leading secular Jewish thinkers and writers. It should answer the questions – what is unique about secular Judaism – what are its basic beliefs and affirmations – what is a secular Jewish life style. The book should appear before the conference and provide a basis for preparation and discussion. Hopefully, the authors would participate in the conversation on the basic issues.

We need people to read the book, attend the conference in Israel and lend their support to this new venture.

The Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews. Israel. July, 1983.

Mark it on your calendar.

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Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
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