Israel’s secularism heading for additional catastrophes

The synthesis of Zionism and socialism has disintegrated, making way for a winning symbiosis of religion and strong ethno-nationalism.

By Shlomo Sand, HAARETZ

How Israel went from atheist Zionism to a Jewish state
It’s sad to read the recent complaints of Israeli intellectuals about the collapse of the only Jewish democracy in the Middle East. The secular melancholy is likely to arouse identification among readers – but not to enlighten them, alas.

It sometimes seems that words are nothing more than props in the hands of talented circus acrobats. For example, there is a profound connection between the terms secularism and atheism, but they are by no means congruent or identical. Among Israeli intellectuals, and not by chance, the differences between the two are far more vague than in other areas of the national discourse.

For example, a person can be secular in the political sense of the word and believe in a higher power (like the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz), or an atheist who is not really secular (like the late Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion). Secularism is – not only, but mainly – a political viewpoint, whereas atheism is firstly a philosophical viewpoint.

In the historical development of liberal democracy – and, in effect, in the growth of some of the authoritarian democracies, too – secularism meant the separation of religion and state. Or, to be more precise, a severance of the traditional Gordian knot between political society and the Church (or churches).

It’s true that the secularization of the public-political space was never total – see, for example, the flags of Sweden and Norway – or the enduring relationship between the United Kingdom and the Anglican church. But legislation regarding marital status, neutrality on issues of belief and ritual, public education without the intervention of the priesthood, and defining citizenship and nationality without religious criteria, all became the norm in most countries in the 20th century (with the exception of those in the Middle East and North Africa).

Zionism as a national movement that rebelled against historical Judaism was mainly atheistic. Most of its leaders and activists ceased believing in redemption through the coming of the Messiah, the long-standing essence of Jewish belief, and took their fate into their own hands. The power of the human subject replaced the power of the omnipotent God.

The rabbis knew that, and were terrified – and, therefore, almost all of them became avowed anti-Zionists. From Hasidic rebbes Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, the Admor of Lubavitch (Chabad) and Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (the Admor of Gur) to leading U.S. Reform Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, founder of the Reform Central Conference, mitnagdim and Hasidim, Orthodox, Reform and Conservative, all saw the rise of Zionism as the end of Judaism. Due to the sweeping opposition of the rabbis of Germany, Theodor Herzl was forced to transfer the First Zionist Congress from Munich to the Swiss city of Basel.

But beginning with the first stages in the consolidation and settlement of the Zionist movement, it was forced to meticulously sort and thoroughly nationalize some of the religious beliefs in order to turn them into nation-building myths.

For the atheistic Zionists, God was dead and therefore the Holy Land became the homeland; all the traditional holidays became national holidays; and Jerusalem stopped being a heavenly city and became the very earthly capital of an eternal people. But it wasn’t these decisions, or many others, that prevented secular nationalism from serving as the foundation for the establishment of the State of Israel.

The main reason for Zionism’s inability to establish a secular entity with a constitution – in which religion is separated from the state – lay elsewhere. The problematic nature of defining the “Jew” according to secular criteria – cultural, linguistic, political or “biological” (despite all efforts, it’s still impossible to determine who is a Jew by means of DNA) – was what eliminated the option of a secularized identity.

For example, in 1918, Ben-Gurion – the future founder of the state – was convinced, as were many others, that most of the population of the Land of Israel had not been exiled, but converted to Islam with the Arab conquest, and therefore was clearly Jewish in origin.

In 1948, he had already given up on this confused and dangerous idea, and instead asserted that the Jewish people had been exiled by force and had wandered in isolation for 2,000 years. Shortly before that, he presented the weak and depleted religious Zionist stream with a valuable gift: In the famous “status quo” letter, all the laws pertaining to marital status, adoption and burial were given over to the Chief Rabbinate. The fear of assimilation was the nightmare shared by Judaism and Zionism, and it won out in the end.

Within a short time, the principle of the religious definition was accepted in identity politics: A “Jew” is someone who was born to a Jewish mother or converted, and is not a member of another religion. In other words, if you don’t meet those conditions, you cannot be a part of the revival of the “Jewish people,” even if you adopt Israeli culture, speak fluent Hebrew and celebrate on Israeli Independence Day. It’s a very logical historical process: Since there is no secular Jewish culture, it’s impossible to join by secular means something that doesn’t exist.

And then came 1967. The State of Israel expanded significantly, but at the same time a large non-Jewish population was also brought together under the country’s muscular Jewish wing. The Jewish constraints also had to be tightened in the face of the confusing misunderstandings that were liable to be created as a result of the territorial-demographic booby trap.

From now on, more than ever, the emphasis had to be on the heading “Jewish” – in other words, the state belonging to those who were born to a Jewish mother or converted according to Jewish law and, God forbid, not the country of all its citizens.

The justifications for the appetite for renewed settlement also relied less on the Zionist demand for independent sovereignty and far more on the biblical idea of the Promised Land. That’s why it is no coincidence that the clerical establishment became increasingly inflated at the same time.

Like socialism and political-civil nationalism, the crisis of secular ideologies in the face of capitalistic globalism also created an inviting atmosphere for the rise of “premodern” identities, mainly ethno-religious but also ethno-biological as well. And if these identities have yet to achieve total victory throughout the Western world, in other corners of the planet – from Eastern Europe to the Third World – they have chalked up considerable achievements. In Israel, due to the previous ethnocentric background, the new-old identities have become very popular. The synthesis of Zionism and socialism has disintegrated totally, making way for a winning symbiosis of religion and strong ethno-nationalism.

For pseudo-secular Zionists – and not only for them – this new situation is difficult and oppressive. But because they do not have answers to the identity problems and contradictions that have been part of Israeli society since its inception, we can apparently anticipate additional catastrophes.

The writer is the author of “Twilight of History” (Verso)

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12 Comments / 12 Comments

  1. Terje

    >> making way for a winning symbiosis of religion and
    >> strong ethno-nationalism

    In other words, an idea that closely mimics that of Germany 1936-1945. Isn’t that a little sad?

  2. Yeshayahu Hollander

    What a narrative!! Like all political narratives, it does not bother to adhere to facts. For instance “…[Ben Gurion] presented the weak and depleted religious Zionist stream with a valuable gift: In the famous “status quo” letter, all the laws pertaining to marital status, adoption and burial were given over to the Chief Rabbinate.” Actually, the people with whom Ben Gurion signed the “status quo” were the leaders of the Agudath Israel, and the agreement did not relate to the Chief Rabbinate, but stated that the Israeli law would adhere to the traditional the Jewish Law. The Agudah was actually against the Chief Rabbinate.

    The author writes about “pseudo-secular Zionists”. The use of “pseudo” is derogatory. This is understandable in an article written by a person with a cosmopolitan atheistic mindset. This mindset is indeed common to a small percentage of Israelis, perhaps the Meretz voters and a few of the so-called Zionist Union [previously Labour], but this is not at all the way these people are viewed by themselves or by observers who do not adhere to the political slant of the author. They are not “pseudo” at all. They are people who try to accommodate both their Jewish identity and their secular ideals. They deserve more respect, even by an ideological cosmopolitan author in the Haaretz.

  3. AJM

    Thank you for this thought-provoking article

  4. Philippe

    Shlomo Sand is a serial hate thrower and to practice his strange exercice he has a very selective memory . In that ” article ” he totally ignores the Law of Return ; he therefore omits to observe that the cornerstone of Israel’s revival – the law of Return – do explicitly include all families members – children and grand-children – who are not jewish according to the halakha. His calculated omission, is aimed to hide the fact that israel’ s founders carefully considered welcoming families of mixed origin and by mixed origin ,they were clearly aware of their mixed history . The aim of the zionist founders was and still is the ingathering of the exiled . The founders were also not aware of the twisted identity crisis of the future Shlomo Sand characters who could only think of themselves as pure souls without any kind of historical-religious-cultural influence. Actually such characters were found once in a while , in the style of Baruch Spinosa. Baruch Spinosa would not have come to Israel, not because he was excommuniated , but because he could not feel any historical link with its past ancestors. Sand tries to impersonate a contemporary Spinosa, let him play that kind of role, the shoes of B.B.S are still too big for him .

  5. gee59

    We can be sure of one thing. Whatever Ha’aretz publishes is sure to be first anti-Israel and second nearly always a lie

  6. Israel was set up as a Jewish State with Jewish values and traditions. When you discard your heritage and traditions you are abandoning any connection to the past, whereby you loose you right to the land of your forefathers and you loose your unique identity as a Jew who observes his traditions and heritage. The Jewish people ended up in Diaspora because of baseless hate and failing to observe the Jewish Bible and its commandments. The Jewish people have survived for over 4,000 years because of their strict adherence to our Bible, while many others have diminished or disappeared completely.

  7. @ AJM:

    at the Basle Session of the 20th Zionist Congress at Zurich(1937)

    No Jew has the right to yield the rights of the Jewish People in Israel –
    David Ben Gurion

    (David Ben-Gurion was the first Prime Minister of Israel and widely hailed as the State’s main founder).

    “No Jew has the right to yield the rights of the Jewish People in Israel.
    No Jew has the authority to do so.
    No Jewish body has the authority to do so.
    Not even the entire Jewish People alive today has the right to yield any part of Israel.
    It is the right of the Jewish People over the generations, a right that under
    no conditions can be cancelled.
    Even if Jews during a specific period proclaim they are relinquishing this right, they have neither the power nor the authority to deny it to future generations.
    No concession of this type is binding or obligates the Jewish People. Our right to the country – the entire country – exists as an eternal right, and we shall not yield this historic right until its full and complete redemption is realized.”

    (David Ben Gurion, Zionist Congress, Basel, Switzerland, 1937.)

    “No country in the world exists today by virtue of its ‘right’.
    All countries exist today by virtue of their ability to defend themselves against those who seek their destruction

  8. @ Philippe:

    Although Spinoza was excommunicated and exiled from the community, you must know that he later repented, and suffered the punishment of having to lie across the doorstep of the synagogue and allow all the congregation to step over him. He did this and it’s part of his historical identity. He was a Jew, and returned to his religion.

  9. YJ Draiman Said:

    (David Ben-Gurion was the first Prime Minister of Israel and widely hailed as the State’s main founder).


    I think that in HIS way, Weitzman was as much the founder of Israel as Ben Gurion. He was the brain, and represented the Jewish People with the Goyim, and did it very well. It was HE who persuaded Truman to recognise Israel when the US was temporising and holding back recognition asking the Jews to accept less than a state. . Even before he went to see him he cabled Ben Gurion not to hesitate, to IMMEDIATELY declare the State. I remember the circumstances as if it were yesterday.

    Truman who was an anti-semite, had a Jewish business partner named Harry Goodman, many years before, who is given credit for going to see him to ask him to see Weitzman, who was sick, but still travelled the long way over to the US.

    All the thanks Weitzman got for spending his whole life for the Jewish People, and actually bargaining with Britain (through his discovery of a better, cheaper quicker way to make explosives, which he GAVE freely to Britain), to get the Balfour Letter accepted, which was the REAL KEY to the Mandate, was to be President, which meant sitting on his backside and visiting orphanages and hospitals. making no political comments etc. He really wanted to be the first PM and he deserved it more than Ben Gurion, but was disappointed at the end.

  10. David Barrett

    Phillippe What is your source re Spinoza please?

  11. Sebastien Zorn

    @ Terje:
    Did I misread or did you just compare Israel with Nazi Germany?

  12. Sebastien Zorn

    @ David Barrett:



    I haven’t read Spinoza but after reading these two articles, I think he would be in the appeasement camp, if he were alive today, not so much because a reform or quasi-secularist national camp within Zionism is impossible as because today it barely exists. People who think like Spinoza are generally in the “let’s give away the country to the enemy” camp. What do you think after reading the above cited articles?

    for example:

    “In many ways, Spinoza was a precursor of the European enlightenment, and as such, a precursor of the Jewish enlightenment. Spinoza was the first Jewish thinker to envision the secular state, and by implications, the problems of identity that would arise for Jews who were not religious. As such, he made the idea of Zionism possible and provided a philosophical framework for secular, universalistic Judaism. Spinoza spurned what he called historical religion, and believed that the misadventures of the Jewish people were due to the vicissitudes of natural law, rather than the workings of the divine will. For that reason, he also envisioned the possibility that there could be a secular reconstitution of the Jews in their own state, without subscribing to Messianism. However, Spinoza did not take any stand on the desirability of restoration of the Jews.”

    “The treatise also rejected the Jewish notion of “chosenness”; to Spinoza, all peoples are on par with each other, as God has not elevated one over the other. Spinoza also offered a sociological explanation as to how the Jewish people had managed to survive for so long, despite facing relentless persecution. In his view, the Jews had been preserved due to a combination of Gentile hatred and Jewish separatism.
    He also gave one final, crucial reason for the continued Jewish presence, which in his view, was by itself sufficient to maintain the survival of the nation forever: circumcision. It was the ultimate anthropological expression of bodily marking, a tangible symbol of separateness which was the ultimate identifier.
    Spinoza also posited a novel view of the Torah; he claimed that it was essentially a political constitution of the ancient state of Israel. In his view, because the state no longer existed, its constitution could no longer be valid. He argued that the Torah was thus suited to a particular time and place; because times and circumstances had changed, the Torah could no longer be regarded as a valid document.”

    While, a contemporary Spinoza might be motivated to oppose concessions for security concerns and the demonstrated impossibility of mass assimilation as a solution for anti-semitism, it seems fairly clear to me that there is no way he would have had the slightest historical or religious attachment to any part of the land of Eretz Israel.

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