Israel, threatened by religion

Print More
Houses are seen in the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev (bottom) with the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the backgraund, in the occupied West Bank, on Dec. 29, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Baz Ratner

Houses are seen in the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev (bottom) with the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the backgraund, in the occupied West Bank, on Dec. 29, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Baz Ratner

JERUSALEM (RNS) I came to Israel two weeks ago to speak at the annual conference of the Open University’s Center for the Study of Relations Between Jews, Christians, Muslims. The theme this year had to do with ways of coping with modernization and secularization.

Talk after talk suggested that in Israel the coping is going rather too well.

Religious barriers to intermarriage are stronger than ever, even among the nonobservant. When ultra-orthodox Jewish and Bedouin women obtain higher education, it’s in order to strengthen their families’ religious traditionalism. As in the U.S., religious conservatives have had no trouble swallowing libertarian economics. And so on.

Haifa, December 24, 2016

Mark Silk

Haifa, December 24, 2016

Sure, Tel Aviv remains a secular world apart — metal street menorahs and seasonal jelly doughnuts lost in the shuffle of natives surfing, concertgoing and hanging out in cafes as usual. In pluralist Haifa, Jews and Arabs crowd the downtown, under a canopy of lights stretching from the Christmas tree and the Dove of Peace menorah up toward the Baha’i Temple.

But meanwhile, tribes of haredim and religious Zionists populate the landscape in steadily growing proportions. Jerusalem’s secular enclaves grow smaller and smaller. Everywhere, there is a sense of secularism and pluralism in decline.

Enter U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 and John Kerry’s rationale for the Obama administration’s decision to let it pass. Never mind the claims of anti-Israel bias. Never mind how much the Israeli settlements are to blame for the lack of a peace agreement.

The central issue is the power of religious zealots to determine the character, if not the future, of the Jewish state.

The crux of Kerry’s long speech was this:

Today, there are a number — there are a similar number of Jews and Palestinians living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. They have a choice. They can choose to live together in one state or they can separate into two states. But here is a fundamental reality: If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic, it cannot be both.

The leaders of the settler movement, who hold the Netanyahu government in thrall, choose one state — Jewish and not democratic. Which is to say they are committed to making (Orthodox) Judaism integral to Israeli identity and to continuing the disenfranchisement of the Arabs living in the West Bank and Gaza.

The settler movement is not about national security or making the desert bloom. It’s about religious claims to the land and a messianic vision of the future. It includes groups planning the rebuilding of the Temple and raising doves and livestock in anticipation of the resumption of animal sacrifice.

Donald Trump is, they believe, the answer to their prayers. And why not? He has denounced Resolution 2334 and named as his ambassador to Israel a man who is a leading supporter of Beit El, of one of the more controversial West Bank settlements.

Beit El’s Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a spiritual leader of religious Zionism, in 2010 started a campaign to stop Jews from renting apartments to Arabs. Two years later, he delivered a ruling that women should not run for the Knesset because of modesty.

The head of the Beit El yeshiva, Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed, has urged that non-Jewish citizens of Israel considered subversive be stripped of their citizenship.

In other words, the settler movement is to Israel what end-times evangelicals and religious right extremists are to the United States. Now, with an American president who is prepared to acquiesce in its agenda about to take office, the organized Jewish community is spending its time criticizing an outgoing administration that is adhering to long-standing American support of a two-state solution.

It is to weep.