The Land of the Philistines
Malkin, Irad, The Independent (London, England)
I sometimes ponder the fate of the religious brother of my secular, Zionist grandmother. In 1936 she migrated to Palestine; however, he was forbidden from doing so by his rabbi. The Jewish state, claimed the rabbi, must not be rebuilt before the coming of the Messiah. The advice was catastrophic (the Germans killed my great uncle in Poland), but nonetheless symptomatic of the Jewish-Zionist paradox: on the one hand there was a territorial, spiritual Judaism, and on the other secular Zionism.
The origins of the Zionist movement consisted in a rebellion against the kind of religious Judaism that made a virtue of a diaspora existence. Indeed, except for one religious movement, whose descendant is Israel's National Religious Party, all other Jewish religious sectors in Israel remain, until today, ostensibly non-Zionist. Their religious parties, which have made significant gains in this week's elections, are experienced veterans of the political election game in Israel. In the early Fifties their interests were mainly sectorial. But in time they changed their focus, and today their agenda has come full circle in its desire to reverse Zionism's definition of what Judaism is all about. Their success could change the face of Israel, its relations with the Arabs, and the value Israeli society attaches to the territorial aspects of "the Jewish State".
The view of Israel from abroad is far too narrow and mistakenly concentrates on external aspects of the Israeli-Arab relationships. Israel's picture in the media is "event-oriented". This underplays deeper changes of attitude and outlook; and it is precisely such changes that contextualise and even create the events. To understand Israeli society one would do well to observe its dilemmas and changing views of itself as a Jewish state. Israel has existed as a state for almost 50 years and during this time, and especially during the three decades following the Six Day War (1967), a polarised cultural struggle has enveloped its society.
The struggle oscillates between notions of a secular, "ethnic", and historically conditioned Jewish identity (the view of secular Zionism), and the religious orientation of Judaism. While the numbers may not seem worrying - the joint religious parties now have 25 (rather than 18 seats) in a parliament of 120, Wednesday's elections nonetheless indicate a dramatic shift towards the religious orientation. This is particularly worrying because, from the a-territorial Judaism of my great-uncle's rabbi, religious Judaism is increasingly identified with the notion of the sacred Land of Israel. The once moderate National Religious Party moved to the ultra-right territorialists almost a generation ago; the same is now happening with the other religious sectors of Israeli political life. I found it no surprise that, for the first time in its history, almost the entire religious block supported the candidate of the right.
Historically, Zionist movements on the left and on the right claim a share in the creation of the state of Israel, in the renaissance of the Hebrew language, and in winning Israel's wars. However, the enormous energy invested in state-building left little time for secular Jews (or "free Jews", as Orthodox Jews disparagingly call them) to invest in their non-religious identity. Jewish values have been abandoned to the cultural investment of religious movements whose members cannot comprehend any definition of Judaism other than a religious one. Having invested relatively little in state- and nation-building, religious movements now find themselves in a position to metamorphose the character of the Jewish state.
What character? One can be an Englishman and maintain almost any religious belief without losing that which makes him "English". But can the same be said of a Jew? The long history of the overlap between the ethnic and the religious terminology has created a basic contradiction that no Israeli can fully solve. …