Last week’s Dahaf poll shows Tommy Lapid’s Shinui party doubling its current six seats in the Knesset if elections were held today. I doubt that one person who told the pollsters that he or she intends to vote for Shinui has a clue about the party’s platform on any issue, or even whether it has a platform. For Shinui voters, the party exists for one, and only one, purpose: to hold aloft the anti-chareidi banner.
Indeed the poll shows Shinui picking up one seat at the expense of its rival for the championship of anti-chareidi incitement: Meretz. Meretz, at least, has well-known positions on a host of issues. Shinui voters, it would seem, prefer their anti-chareidi hatred pure and unadulterated.
Israel today faces not one but many crises. That we have no water to drink, and all our water reservoirs are below the danger line, barely rates news coverage, so overwhelming are the other threats. To date no solution has been found for Palestinian terrorism nor does one appear on the horizon. And that threat, which has transformed the lives of every single person in Israel, pales in comparison to the threat of a nuclear-armed Iraq or Iran.
On the economic front, we have already hit double-digit unemployment and are headed towards double-digit inflation. In the midst of an ongoing recession and a war, the government finds itself forced to cut over 10 billion shekels from its last budget. Hi-tech, the engine of the ‘90s boom, shows few signs of a worldwide turnaround in the near future. And the long-range prospects for tourism, the other mainstay of Israel’s economy, are even bleaker.
Despite these multiple crises, a full 10% of the electorate, according to the Dahaf poll, have rallied to the single slogan: Stop the Chareidim. If one adds, the nine projected seats for Meretz, whose campaign literature over the years has often portrayed the chareidi world as an encroaching black plague, it becomes clear that the anti-chareidi agenda is paramount for nearly 20% of voters.
Yet if every single chareidi Jew in Israel were to disappear tomorrow, our situation would not have changed one iota for the better. The Palestinians, Saddam Husseini, and Ayatollah Khameini would still be there, and no less bent on our destruction; hi-tech would still be in the dumps, and the last remaining Jewish tourists – the religious -- would disappear; and there would still be no water to drink.
Classic Zionist education stressed "the negation of the Galut (Exile)." That ideal has proven a failure. Far from creating an indigenous Israeli culture, our youth avidly ape the fashions of the West to a far greater degree than Jews living among gentiles ever did. The old claim that Jews would at last be masters of their own fate in the Jewish state rings hollow today, as our dependence on America becomes ever clearer. All that remains, then, of the Zionist education is the contempt for the Torah student, the symbol par excellance of the Galut.
That so many Israeli Jews define themselves today in terms of anti-religious politics is a tragedy for them no less than for religious Jews. Few countries confront the multitude of threats that Israel does, and few require the same resources of national unity. A shared Jewish identity is the only basis for creating that unity, but it is more often a cause of division than reconciliation.
We are paying a heavy toll for the intertwining of religion and politics in Israel. In a multi-party political system, it was natural that religious parties should form to promote religious values. And it is certainly understandable why religious citizens were unwilling to trust in the kindness of strangers for the support for their institutions. Yet the argument of necessity cannot blind us to the cost of the interrelationship between religion and politics.
The Jewish state is, in some ways, the most difficult place in the world to engage one’s fellow Jews in a discussion of Torah. Every such discussion must be proceeded by another about the army, or the settlements, or economic productivity. Too often the discussion never proceeds any further. Many Israeli-born Jews find themselves delving into their Judaism for the first time only while living abroad, where all these issues are off the table.
For too many Israeli Jews, Judaism has become primarily a negative identity. Thus A.B. Yehoshua can claim, "It was not religious yearnings that returned us to Israel but only anti-Semitism." Never mind that as a historical matter the claim is wrong. Had Zionism not drawn from deep wells of millennial yearning for Zion, the movement would have opted for more spacious Uganda and would be today nothing more than a curious historical footnote in the long line of failed utopian projects. Never mind that if Zionism’s only purpose was to spare Jews from anti-Semitism it has been a disastrous failure. Today Israel is more likely to be the source of Jew hatred than its cure.
What is striking, however, is Yehoshua’s eagerness to identify Zionism with Jean-Paul Satre’s definition of a Jew as nothing more than the creation of the anti-Semite, without a positive identity of his own.
The widespread alienation from all things religious represents a failure on the part of the religious community. Today all the conditions for a renewed interest in Torah are in place. The old idols lie in the dust. No longer do we suffer the illusion that we can determine our fate by the might of our arms. We have reached a situation in which there is no clear way out, in the natural course of events – the situation that the Chazon Ish described as precondition for all Divine salvation. Yet outside those with a traditional attachment to religion, we do not see any signs of widespread return to Torah study or observance.
Some religious Jews have demonstrated that it is possible for a religious Jew to integrate into most areas of a modern society. Yet they have failed to convey to their non-religious co-wrokers a feeling that their Judaism makes a real difference in their lives, thereby leading those co-workers to inquire more deeply.
Others by their widely divergent lifestyle make it clear that the Torah informs every aspect of a religious Jew’s life. But they have failed to demonstrate that the Torah can be the basis for an entire society, and not just for a small subgroup within a larger society of people engaged in "normal" pursuits.
Many Israelis are no doubt curious about their religion and feel drawn to know more. But if a 35-year-old computer programmer, with a wife, three kids, and a negative bank balance, feels the only choice he has is between full-time yeshiva study and staying put religiously, he will stay put.
Unless religious Jews get out the message that the Torah applies to all of life, not just the beis medrash, and has an important message about every aspect of human existence, the alienation from Judaism will only grow and with it the power of anti-religious demagogues.