The True Source of Religious-Secular Tension in Israel: The Arrogance of Ben-Gurion (and now Naftali Bennett)
As the latest round of coalition-building maneuvering plays out in Israel – with Bibi Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett (the new false-messiah of religious nationalists; the previous one being Ariel Sharon), and Yair Lapid locked in that time-worn political dance we’ve watched so many times in the past – it is critical to understand the history behind one of the issues so fiercely debated in the current political situation: the “universal” draft of yeshiva (rabbinical) students. It is this very issue which has, until this point, prevented the formation of a government. Bennett has declared that his Jewish Home party will not join Netanyahu’s coalition unless a universal draft law is enacted. The fight over yeshiva students and army service is at the core of much of the tension between the secular/non-observant and religious/hareidi communities in Israel. In fact, the roots of this tension extend back well before the founding of the State of Israel in 1947.
A little bit of background information is in order here. Most people have a profound misunderstanding regarding the nature of the secular/political Zionist movement which was inspired by the publication, in 1886, of Theodore Herzl’s manifesto Der Judeenstaat (The Jew’s State). The movement was about much more than creating a homeland for Jewish people. Most of the leaders of political Zionism were swept up in the zeitgeist and were ardent socialists and nationalists, two of the great ideological movements of those times. Many were rabidly secular/anti-religionists who looked with contempt at the “backward” and “anti-modern” Hareidi/Hassidic/Orthodox Jews. Their contempt for the “medieval” Sephardic/Arab Jewish communities ran even deeper. Ben-Gurion (the first Prime Minister of the State of Israel) once referred to Moroccan Jews as “savages.”
The secular/political Zionist dream was to create – along with a Jewish homeland – a completely new definition of the Jew and the Jewish People; a Jewishness that unambiguously excluded the concept of a covenantal people loyal to the Torah and the commandments. In other words, the Judaism that had sustained the Nation of Israel for the previous 3,400 years was to be discarded and replaced with a modernistic amalgamation of nationalism, socialism, enlightened western culture, and ethnic Jewish identity.
From the World Zionist Organization website:
For some Zionists, especially the East European Jewish intellectuals, Zionism was not only a national movement committed to the establishment of a Jewish homeland. It also wished to create a modern, secular Jewish identity. According to this formulation it was not religion that was to provide the basis for Jewish identity but ethnicity and nationalism. The Hebrew language, the land of Israel, Jewish history, literature, customs, folklore and their interplay were to provide a new more open-ended paradigm for Jewish identity.
Historian, Rabbi Ken Spiro, in his essay on Modern Zionism elaborates:
The key factor which shaped their [secular Zionist thinkers] worldview was a nationalism based not only on the notion of creating a physical Jewish homeland, but also of creating a new kind of Jew to build and maintain this homeland. Many of these early Zionist thinkers felt that centuries of ghettoization and persecution had robbed the Jews of their pride and strength. To build a homeland required a proud, self-sufficient Jew: a Jew who could farm, defend himself, and build the land.
The pious, poor, ghettoized Jew—who presented a pathetic image of a man stooped-over and always at the mercy of his persecutors—had to be done away with. To build a state required something all-together different—a “Hebrew.” The early Zionists called themselves “Hebrews” and not Jews, and deliberately changed their German or Russian or Yiddish names to sound more Hebraic and nationalistic (for example, David Gruen became David Ben-Gurion. Shimon Persky became Shimon Perez). It was a deliberate attempt to create a totally new Jewish identity and rid themselves of any aspect of the religious, Diaspora Jewish identity…These early Zionist leaders knew of course that religion had preserved Jewish identity in the ghettos and shtetls of Europe, but in the modern Jewish state, they felt there would be no need for it. Of course the Bible would be used as a source of Jewish history and culture but there was no room for religion or ritual in the modern Jewish state.
This obsession with creating a “new Jew” even trumped the basic values of Jewish brotherhood, the imperative that all Jews are responsible for one another, and that nothing takes precedence over saving lives. David Ben-Gurion shockingly wrote the following in 1938, one month after Kristellnacht:
“If I knew it was possible to save all [Jewish] children of Germany by their transfer to England and only half of them by transferring them to Eretz-Yisrael, I would choose the latter—-because we are faced not only with the accounting of these [Jewish] children but also with the historical accounting of the Jewish People.”
In a cloud of obliviousness born of arrogance secular Zionist leaders were certain they would emerge triumphant in their plan to redefine the entire direction and purpose of the Jewish people. Left-wing politician and journalist Urey Avnery wrote the following in 2002, capturing the attitude shared by many of the early Zionist ideologues:
People of my age can remember the situation. Ben-Gurion, like all of us, believed that the Jewish religion was about to die out. Some old people, who spoke Yiddish, were still praying in the synagogues, but with time they would disappear. We, the young new Israelis, were secular, modern, free from these old superstitions. Not in his darkest nightmares could Ben-Gurion have imagined a time when religious pupils, some of whom are not taught in their schools even the most basic modern skills, would amount to nearly half the Israeli Jewish school population.
The number of religious shirkers now deprives the army of several divisions. [Orthodox yeshiva students are not required to serve in the army, one of several concessions Ben Gurion granted Orthodox leaders in return for their political support.] Step by step, the religious community is taking over the state. The religious settlers, the religious anti-Arab pogromists, their allies and ultra-right collaborators are gaining new footholds by the day. Just now the army has announced that 40% of candidates for junior officers’ courses are wearing kippahs. In 1948, when our army came into being, I did not see a single kippah-wearing soldier, not to mention an officer.
(As an aside, note the schizoid attitude – shared by many left-wingers in Israel – expressed by Avnery. First he complains about the number of “religious shirkers” who do not serve in the Army. He then goes on to express his shock and disgust that 40% of candidates for officer’s courses in the Army are kippah-wearing religious Jews! Like the joke about the elderly woman who complained that not only did the food at her hotel taste terrible….but they served such small portions! Avnery’s hatred of religious Jews creates such cognitive dissonance that it’s impossible for him to perceive the absurdity of his position.)
The stage was now set for the inevitable clash with the great Torah sages and the Orthodox community who certainly had no intention of accepting David Ben-Gurion’s “new Jew.” Even before the turn of the century, the illustrious Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Tzadok HaCohen Rabinowitz (1823-1900), wrote the following: “It may be assumed that if the Zionists gain domination they will seek to remove from the hearts of Israel, belief in God and in the truth of the Torah…they have thrown off their garments of assimilation and put on a cloak of zeal so that they appear zealous on the behalf of Judaism. They are in fact digging a hole beneath our faith and seeking to lead Israel from beneath the wings of the Divine Presence.”
By 1918, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, President of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and later to become the first President of the State of Israel, was already embroiled in bitter personal debates with Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, Chief Rabbi of the Ashkenazic Hareidi community of Jerusalem, which had roots going back to the late 18th century. The debates were over the future of Jewish education in the Holy Land. Weizmann tried to convince Rabbi Sonnenfeld that the Hareidi schools must change their curriculums to be more “modern” and that if they would agree, WZO would provide much needed funding to the impoverished Hareidi community. Rabbi Sonnenfeld was outraged that a man who cared nothing for the Torah and traditions of Judaism would try to dictate to his entire community how they should educate their children. It goes without saying that he flat out refused both to make any changes in the educational system and to accept any funding from WZO.
The majority of the world’s leading Torah Sages, vehemently and indignantly denied WZO’s claim that it represented the entire Jewish people. Rabbi Sonnenfeld, in the name of Agudas Yisroel (a European based organization representing Orthodox Jews) and the Eida Chareidis (the official name of the Hareidi establishment in Jerusalem) was determined to conduct his own negotiations with both the British rulers of Palestine and with the surrounding Arab leaders, particularly in Trans-Jordan. They were not interested in WZO’s dream of an independent Jewish state, not only because of its secular/anti-religious nature, but because they rightly feared the inevitable bloodshed that would occur in a conflict with the Arabs if the drive for statehood continued. They wanted to have a harmonious relationship with the Arabs, were fully prepared to accept British rule, and only wanted autonomy so that they could continue living as a Torah-based community. As it turns out, the Hareidim were the original “Peace Now” movement. (Ironically, in modern Israel, nowhere is the hatred of the Hareidi community stronger than in the leftist “peace camp.”)
Dr. Jacob Israel de Haan, a secular Dutch journalist and intellectual who had become increasingly religious while forming a close relationship with Rabbi Sonnenfeld, represented the Eida Chareidis in negotiations with the Arabs and British. His prominence, intellectual acuity, and skill as a negotiator represented a real threat to WZO’s self-appointed position as the exclusive representative of the Jewish community in dealings with the British or Arabs. De Haan was labeled a traitor by the Zionist establishment. On June 30, 1924, in a shocking display of arrogance, brutality, and abandonment of Jewish values, the Haganah (para-military wing of WZO), under the leadership of Yitzchak Ben-Zvi (a future President of the State of Israel), assassinated De Haan as he emerged from the synagogue of the Shaarei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem. It was this same sense of arrogance and self-aggrandizement that Ben-Gurion used in June, 1948, to justify his ordering the murders of 16 members of the Irgun, a group representing his political rivals.
The murder of De Haan achieved its goal inasmuch as it effectively stopped the Orthodox community from further progress in their own negotiations. However, the Zionist leadership faced a much bigger problem. A large percentage of the new immigrants were from Arab countries. They had religious traditions stretching back hundreds or even thousands of years in their respective communities and had no interest in the concept of a “new Jew.” These immigrants represented a serious political threat to the Ashkenazi (European Jews) dominated Socialist Labor party. It was imperative that their children be prevented from continuing with their traditional Jewish education and to be indoctrinated with modern Zionistic ideology.
Although Israeli law mandated that parents could choose a religious or secular stream of education, it was decided by the Ministry of Education not to extend this option to the immigrant camps. The only education available was the secular curriculum. In order to ensure implementation of this indoctrination process a Department for Imparting Culture and Absorption for Immigrants was formed, headed by Nachum Levin. In his book, The Melting Pot in Israel: The Commission of Inquiry Concerning the Education of Immigrant Children During the Early Years of the State (Suny Press, 2002), Zvi Zameret writes:
“The instructions to the teachers in the immigrant camps reflect the overall worldview that the Department of Culture wished to instill in the children. The pedagogical objective was to draw the immigrant children closer to accepting the Zionist revolution and the image of the “new man” that it wished to create.”
Many young boys had their peyot (sidecurls) forcibly cut off and everything was done to coerce them to violate the Sabbath and eat non-kosher food. A prominent religious intellectual in Israel, Dr. Yeshayahu Leibowitz complained of religious coercion in Kfar Lifta near Jerusalem. He claimed that the local instructor explicitly threatened the new immigrants that should they insist upon religious education, they would be penalized in terms of provisions of food, clothing, and jobs. In his testimony before the Frumkin Commission (established to investigate the scandal) he said:
“I came into contact with the new immigrants in a number of moshavim (new towns)…I found the local instructor used threats against the new settlers…there is interference [in their religious observance and education] and at times…brutal means of threats and coercion. We are forced to put up a fight in each and every place.”
If there is any doubt as to the truth of these accusations, here are the words of Nachum Levin himself, Director of the Department of Culture and Absorption and the man responsible for the educational system in the immigrant camps. He spoke these words in a closed session of the Histadrut (Israel Labor Federation):
“All of the camps today are flooded with yeshiva students…they represent the powers of darkness. They will not educate these children or youth to a life of pioneering or to go to the Negev. The struggle here is a struggle for the character of the immigrants…this is a battle not about religion, but for political influence over the immigrants and the future image of the State of Israel.” Enough said.
It is against this backdrop that the conflict arose over mandatory army service. Under no circumstances was the orthodox community prepared to put their young sons – during the most impressionable years of their lives (18-21 years of age) – in the hands of a government that looked at their way of life with disdain, contempt, and outright hatred; a government that was even prepared to murder other Jews to achieve their goals.
David Ben-Gurion realized that any attempt to force the issue would result, literally, in civil war. The government reluctantly amended the draft law to exclude orthodox men who were learning full time in Yeshivot (rabbinical seminaries). However, none of these men would be permitted to work legally unless they did Army service. This act of spiteful cruelty was a typical outgrowth of the unbridled arrogance of Ben-Gurion and his ilk. The message to the Hareidi community was the following: If you don’t do it our way, we will strip you of your basic human dignity; that is to say, the ability to work and support oneself and one’s family. If you want to live your way of life you will be forced to live on either government handouts or charity. In other words, the Hareidim effectively became 2nd class citizens in the new State of Israel. After forcing the Hareidi community into this situation and forbidding them to work unless they toed the secular-Zionist line, they then accused them of being “parasites” because they didn’t work!
The “parasite” canard along with the accusation that the Hareidim refuse to “share the burden” of serving in the army, has been used as a stick with which to beat the Hareidi community since the founding of the State of Israel. It has also been effectively used by secular ideologues to demonize Hareidim among non-observant Israelis. Imagine how different it would have been if instead of doing everything in his power to marginalize the Hareidi community Ben-Gurion had held out his hand in brotherly love and said the following:
“We are brothers, the sons of one man” (Gen. 42:13) All of us are here because we are Jews. We all love the land of Israel and we all agree that a Jew must serve the needs of the Jewish people. Our sons will serve by joining the army, your sons will serve by keeping alive our moral and spiritual legacy by studying Torah. After both complete their years of service they are free to work and become productive members of our society.
How different it could have been indeed.
Now, in 2013, Naftali Bennett – ostensibly an orthodox Jew – instead of using his newfound political power to help heal these terrible wounds in the Jewish people, has decided to pour salt on them instead. It is obvious that something is horribly wrong when even the radically left-wing Ha’aretz (!) in a 3/6/13 op-ed piece points out that Bennett’s approach may destroy all the progress that has been made until now in healing the religious/secular rift in Israeli society.
All of this is a shameful chapter in Jewish history which is unknown to most Jews and rarely talked about by those who do know. It is time for the Israeli government to confess its sins and accept the orthodox/Hareidi community for what it is. What could be more absurd than a group of people tripping over themselves while trying to make peace with those who have been violently trying to destroy us for the past 70 years, and yet are unable to reach out and make peace with their own brothers?!
Let us all pray that soon we will truly enter an era that reflects the words of the Psalmist:
“How goodly and sweet it is when brothers sit in peace together.”
Rabbi Moshe Averick is an orthodox rabbi, a regular columnist for the Algemeiner Journal, and author of Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist. It is available on Amazon.com and Kindle. Rabbi Averick can be reached via his website. If you wish to be informed when new articles appear, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the email address and the word “Subscribe” in the subject line.