Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

Political Uses of the Hebrew Bible in Current Israeli Discourse: Transcending Right and Left

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

Political Uses of the Hebrew Bible in Current Israeli Discourse: Transcending Right and Left

Article excerpt

The United States and Israel are often seen as the most religiously minded of modern nations. In both these countries, political discourse is often underscored by Christian or Jewish articles of faith, and frequently laced by biblical allusions. Even beyond the contours of actual religious belief, these two nations are evidently the most biblically articulate of modern societies. And yet, their biblical inclinations are quite different.

When Michele Bachmann announced her presidential candidacy during a Republican debate in 2011, she did not say much about her religion. Rather, Bachmann signalled it to fellow-believers. In criticizing President Barack Obama's Libya policy, for example, she said, "We are the head and not the tail." The phrase comes from Deuteronomy 28:13: "The Lord will make you the head and not the tail."


As some analysts have noted, it is often used in theocratic circles to explain why Christians have an obligation to rule, and thus demonstrates Bachman's extremist political stance (Goldberg 2011). But understanding this would remain within the domain of Bachmann's own ilk, bible-savvy political conservatives. In Israel, by contrast, the same biblical verse--albeit carrying more innocent associations, those of Rosh Hashanah's festive gefilte fish signifying the symbolic "head, not tail"--would be recognized by a majority of media consumers. No specialists would be required to help the public read and interpret biblical subtexts.

Present-day Israelis, including many Jewish and some Arab graduates of the national school system, are united by a certain measure of biblical articulacy, a common source of reference and intellectual-emotional connotation, which is freely deployed in everyday speech, in commercial contexts, and in public discourse (A. Shapira 2004). (1)

To be sure, biblical rhetoric in political discourse is not evenly distributed. Jews use it more than Arabs--quotes from the Qur'an or New Testament seldom appear in public discourse, although the Old Testament is of course the domain of all three faiths. Observant Israelis use it more than the secular. The nationalist right, especially its religious majority, from modern to ultra-orthodox, tends to biblicise its political speech more than left wing and/or secular Jewish Israelis. Nevertheless, as this essay aims to demonstrate, both non-observant and dovish public voices, two groups strongly but not exclusively overlapping, make interesting rhetorical and conceptual uses of the Bible as well.

Indeed, the Bible's sustained presence in Israeli discourse can expose the dangers of labelling and pigeonholing its political and cultural subgroups. The book of books can help us think out of the box, when it comes to Israeli political stereotypes.

My topic is recent political uses of the Bible in Israel, especially highlighting such political uses that confound our expectations of right and left, religious and secular. The Bible is still, to this day, strongly present in Israeli public conversation, it has emotive powers, and it is intellectually and politically suggestive. Above all, it is no one's exclusive purview.

Upon its establishment in 1948, the State of Israel adopted several biblical symbols, notably the Menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum of the Temple in Jerusalem, described in Exodus 37:17-24, and depicted on the first-century Titus Arch among the looted Jewish treasures brought to Rome. The double symbolism of biblical sovereignty and reversal of the Roman destruction brought a poignant significance to this re-enacted emblem of the renewed Jewish statehood.

Other biblical references are embedded in official Israeli discourse, including the motto of the Mossad, "For by wise counsel thou shalt wage thy war" (Proverbs 24:6):


On the other hand, civil society organisations that promote human rights and Jewish-Arab peace have drawn their names or mottoes from the Bible too. …

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