Secular Israel is More
Religious Than You Think
The new unity government lacks ultra-Orthodox representatives, but that does not mean that religion is being left out of the conversation.
On March 18, the members of Israel’s new Cabinet gathered at President Shimon Peres’s residence in Jerusalem for a traditional group photo. One element was evidently missing from the frame: members of the ultra-Orthodox political parties. Usually a staple of Israeli governing coalitions, this time the haredi politicians were left out.
Ousting the haredim was a key goal and achievement of Yair Lapid, the rising star and surprise success story of the January 22 election, current finance minister and aspiring national leader. A former TV anchor and popular newspaper columnist, Lapid wanted his victorious image to appear without the ultra-Orthodox, and, in six weeks of negotiations and complicated deal making, he prevailed upon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to divorce his erstwhile “natural partners” and form the first coalition in a decade to include no haredi parties.
The new political equation, however, has not turned Israel into a more secular society, but rather, has exposed a more nuanced spectrum of religious observance. Lapid’s father, Tommy, was a staunch anti-Orthodox writer-turned-politician who led the Shinui party in his day on a strict secular platform. His son inherited the political ambition but not the ideological zeal. Yesh Atid [There Is a Future], the junior Lapid’s party, includes a number of modern Orthodox members, among them its number two, Rabbi Shai Piron, a religious Zionist who is head of a yeshiva in Petach Tikvah.
More importantly, following the election, Lapid joined forces with Naftali Bennett, who led the Habayit Hayehudi [The Jewish Home] party—formerly the National Religious Party—to unexpected electoral success. Bennett played the same trick from the opposite direction: His closest political companion and ally is Ayelet Shaked, a secular woman from Tel Aviv.
By reversing the tendency of Israel’s modern Orthodox community to become more observant and imitate the haredim, Bennett reached out beyond the party’s traditional base. Both he and Lapid presented themselves as figures who could bridge the divide between secular and religious, and the voters loved it. As a result, almost a third of the members of the 19th Knesset are described as religious, a record number.
What does this mean for secular Israelis? Our secularism grew out of the early Zionists’ rejection of the eastern European shtetl and its traditions. Making their aliyah to Palestine, they shed their religion along with their Yiddish. The kibbutz, with its communal lifestyle, was the new ideological trend, replacing prayer and Talmud studies with cultivating the land. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father, apparently believed that religion, having lost the race with science, should simply die out.
Still, the Israel of my youth (and Lapid’s) kept many of the old traditions. Everything was closed on Shabbat, and as children in the 1970s, most of us went to synagogue on Yom Kippur. Only when Russian immigrants came en masse, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, did the public sphere become very secular. Pork was sold in main street butcher stores and supermarkets as never before. As things got more secular, gay culture moved to the mainstream. Highway malls opened on Shabbat. Tel Aviv prided itself on its liberalism as it turned into a kind of Berlin on the Mediterranean.
Yet as much as secularism defined itself as the opposite of religion, few Israelis would call themselves atheists. All of us learn Bible at school and use it as a common cultural basis. Rabbinic weddings are mandatory, unless you’re getting married abroad or living with a common-law spouse. Few secular couples choose to spare their baby sons the brit.
Politically, those who reject religion altogether would be likeliest to vote for Meretz or Labor, or—if they’re Russian speakers—for Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu [Israel Is Our Home], which ran jointly with Likud this year. Lapid tried a different approach from the liberal left by paying respect to religion in its more moderate form. In his pre-politician days, he used to emcee along with a Reform rabbi at weddings and bar mitzvahs at Tel Aviv’s Reform synagogue, Beit Daniel. His columns were full of biblical and traditional references.
Lapid and Bennett, each from his respective position on the spectrum of religious observance, oppose the ultra-Orthodox not for religious reasons but for ideological and social ones. They reject the haredi community’s disdain for the Zionist state and its symbols and the draft deferment and low workforce participation of haredi men, viewing them as parasites who live off the mainstream’s taxes.
“Sharing the burden”—the euphemism for recruiting the haredim into the army and cutting their child subsidies—played well to mainstream voters, who are scared by the demographic (and political) rise of the ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis.
These voters love the all-Israeli image that includes military service and some ties to tradition, if not outright observance. Lapid and Bennett simply understood and rode the trend and added their political freshness to the mix. In doing so, they have redefined the Israeli mainstream.
Aluf Benn is editor-in-chief of Haaretz.