The storm over remarks made by Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman is in many respects a tempest in a teapot, which has for a long time taken on holier aspects than it seems. Neeman wants Torah law, or in other words, he wants Israel to be a country governed by Jewish religious law, halakha. In any event, Israel is already a semi-theocracy. The Israelis who were frightened by the minister’s remarks and who love viewing their country as liberal, Western and secular are forgetting that our life here is more religious, traditional and halakhic than we are prepared to admit.
Between Stockholm and Tehran, Israel of 2009 is much closer to Tehran. From birth to death, from circumcision to funeral, from the establishment of the state to the establishment of the last of the illegal outposts in the West Bank – we are operating in the shadow of the commandments of religion. We should be honest with ourselves and admit it already: The country is too religious. Neeman just wanted to take this one step further, something one can and must come out against; but the religious-nationalist campaign began a long time ago, and it is still going strong.
It begins, of course, with the fact of our presence here. Among other things, it is based on theological reasoning. Abraham the Patriarch was here, so we are, too. He bought the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, so we, too, are in Palestinian Hebron. People who are entirely secular also cite religious and biblical explanations for the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. We can’t even say whether Judaism is a religion or a nationality – and in any event, there is no other country in the Western world where religion has its holy iron grip on the state as it does in Israel.
We don’t need Neeman. There are no civil marriages or divorces, and there are almost no secular funerals. The Law of Return and the definition of who is a Jew – the most fundamental and significant of Israeli precepts – are based on halakha, even without our religious justice minister.
Only 44 percent of Israelis define themselves as secular, as opposed to 64 percent of Swedes who define themselves as atheists; and this is reflected in all aspects of our daily life. A mezuzah on the doorpost of almost every home, and the pagan custom at almost every one of those houses of kissing it. Eighty-five percent of Israelis hold a Passover seder, fervently recalling the plagues – pestilence, boils, death of the first-born. Sixty-seven percent fast on Yom Kippur, which in Western eyes is the strangest of days. The absence of bus or train service on Shabbat, the observance of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) in every public institution, and Sabbath elevators in every hotel and hospital – these too are not exactly the vision of a secular state. A bar-mitzvah for almost every boy, matza in nearly every home on Passover, and the kiddush blessings.
Torah sages of various kinds make decisions on fateful political issues – at the homes of miracle workers, magicians and those passing out amulets – and the lines outside their doors are growing, made up mostly of those who argue they are fervently secular. They are lying to themselves and to others. Expressions of racism and arrogance, too, based on the concept of the “chosen people,” are uttered. And between you and me, who doesn’t believe this (a little)? You don’t need the newly religious and the newly secular. A large portion of secular people are “traditional,” which means religious, but just a little.
In the Bible study of our youth, we put on skullcaps. When, God forbid, the Bible fell on the floor, we would kiss it, with great reverence – secular people like us, as it were. And what happened during morning roll call? The quotation of the day from the Bible. None of us had ever heard of the New Testament, and no one would have dared teach it as part of the education we are trying to glorify. We were also afraid to even enter a church.
The Western Wall is holy to everyone – who has not placed a note with a wish in its crevices? Most Israelis’ reasoning for the continued occupation of “holy” East Jerusalem is also based on religious faith. It is not only the “hilltop youth” of the West Bank settlements who revere every stone. Not only Gush Emunim, the bloc of the faithful, believes in the baseless connection between sanctity and sovereignty. Most of us believe it. Admit it.
Let’s admit that we live in a country with many religious and halakhic attributes. Let’s remove the concocted secularist guise with which we have wrapped ourselves. Shocked by Neeman’s remarks? They are not so far removed from the reality of our lives. Israel is not what you thought. It’s definitely not what we try to present to ourselves and the rest of the world.