The outcome of the under-reported battle between secular and traditional forces in Israeli society will have repercussions far beyond the borders of the Jewish State
Americans, used as they are to being the lucky denizens of the sole world superpower, suffer from severe geopolitical myopia. This condition leads them to interpret every world event whether good or bad as having something to do with America. Arguably, nowhere are Americans and especially Jewish Americans more myopic than when it comes to Israel. Most if not all of them believe that Israel would not have been able to successfully gain and keep its independence had it not been for American political, financial, and military support. The truth, however, is much more complicated.
Historically, Jews have existed and have enjoyed independence in their homeland long before there was an “America” and even long before there was the empire of neo-classical antiquity on which the American Fathers have modeled their new creation: Rome. In modern times, America has done nothing to help in the crucial early stages of the Zionist movement, from its inception in the 1880’s and until the Second World War. In the Holocaust itself, the vast majority of the European Jewry, including my parents, was saved from annihilation by Stalin rather than by FDR. Had Stalin not enabled the evacuation of Soviet Jews from the western reaches of the Soviet Empire that were soon to be occupied by Nazi Germany to Central Asia, Israel would have lost its largest pool of repatriates and no matter how much Americans like to think otherwise, the war against Nazi Germany was already won by Russia when Operation Overlord started in June of 1944. American involvement in the War was supremely important and its sacrifice should be honored at every opportunity, but it was guided more by the justified fear of Soviet expansionism than by the already defeated Nazi Germany.
In the crucial period between the Allied victory over Germany in May of 1945 to Israel’s declaration of independence exactly three years later, the US did absolutely nothing to help the creation of the Jewish state. It provided the so-called “Yeshuv” (literally, “the Settlement”, the name Jews in the Holy Land called themselves prior to independence) with neither money nor weaponry, both of which it sorely needed. Instead, Jews were helped by individual contributors from America and elsewhere and by sympathetic European countries like Czechoslovakia, with every rifle, every machine gun bought and paid for in the European black markets for surplus arms.
The US did not pressure England, as it doubtlessly could have done, to shift its blatantly pro-Arab and anti-Jewish policies and allow the repatriation of the survivors of the Holocaust from Europe to Israel. Instead, it turned a blind eye when Britain captured ships full of Jews who have experienced unimaginable horrors in German death camps, turned them away from the Promised Land, and interned them in concentration camps on Cyprus, all in an effort to aid their Arab clients in so-called “Palestine”.
In the United Nations, Truman voted “aye” on Israeli independence, but so did Joseph Stalin and in the years that followed, years in which Israel’s very existence truly hung in the balance, the US offered little or no help. Israeli nuclear program was started with French technology and the IDF had mostly French and British surplus arms when it achieved its glorious victory over three Arab nations in the 1967 Six Day War. This victory, combined with the rapidly escalating Cold War, caused Russia to switch its support from Israel to the Arabs, severing diplomatic relations with Israel and gaining in return the allegiance of both Egypt and in Syria.
At the risk of being muscled out from the Middle East by its Cold War nemesis, America reluctantly adopted Israel as its client state in the region, a reluctance that was on full display when only six years later Richard Nixon and his secretary of state the very Jewish Henry Kissinger threatened prime minister Golda Meir with severe consequences if she ordered a 1967-like preemptive attack against the gathering Arab forces or even called up the reserves. As a result of this threat (among other, more homemade errors in judgment) Israel was caught unprepared with nearly disastrous consequences when Egypt and Syria simultaneously attacked it on the Day of Atonement in 1973. Only the explicit threat of Israeli nuclear response when the 1973 Yom Kippur War was going poorly could bring about American emergency military aid without which the war would have been lost.
The myth of the three billion dollar a year American aid to Israel was born around that time. It is a myth, because nearly all of that money never leaves the US having been paid to defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics. The resulting “free” weaponry shipments to Israel come with heavy strings attached, something that Israel found out in the mid to late 1980’s when it had developed and built the “Lavi”, a fighter jet that could favorably compete with the American-made F-16, only to have the project shut down via another “do it or else” command from Washington. Today, American military “aid” constitutes no more than a fraction of a percent of Israel’s GDP and is used mostly as leverage to stop Israel from selling its internally developed military technologies, technologies that are part and parcel of many of the most advanced American weapons systems, to China and other BRIC countries.
As always and today more than ever, Israel’s fate lies not with Washington, which is becoming less and less relevant to Israel’s well-being, but in Israel itself, and more specifically with its people, or even more precisely with the roughly 80% of its people who are Jewish. There is a real battle going on right now for the soul of Israel, for the answer to the question what kind of Jewish State will Israel become. An interesting skirmish in this battle, one that was missed in its entirety by the English language media, took place last week in the Jezreel Valley city of Afula (pop. roughly 50 thousand) when a star of the ultra-Orthodox stage, Moti Steinmetz, was about to perform in the municipal park.
Since both Steinmetz and his audience are deeply observant and since Jewish religious observance, the Halachah prohibits the commingling of men and women, Afula’s mayor, Avi Elkabetz had agreed that the performance, one that he was going to attend, could take place while the park would be segregated into “men only” and “women only” sections via portable barriers and that the gender separation could be strictly enforced by the event organizers. A women’s rights group sued, claiming that such segregation in a public venue ran afoul of Israeli basic law. The women’s group won, causing Steinmetz, the star of the event to cancel his appearance. On appeal, however, the ruling of the lower court was reversed, allowing the show to go on, but not before the decision of the court of appeals was being itself appealed, this time to the Supreme Court of Israel.
As the drama developed, the Supreme Court sat in judgment while the show was going on in a segregated fashion. Finally, the Supreme Court agreed with the lower court decision, reinstating the ban on segregation and (though too late for Steinmetz’s show in Afula) establishing a binding precedent for all future events anywhere in Israel. Considering that Israel is now approaching an election that was caused by the failure of the previous one, held just this April, to resolve the question of the secular-religious divide in Israeli society, the Afula incident, rather insignificant in and of itself occupied the national news in Israel for days on end.
At stake is the question of the creeping “orthodoxization” of Israel, a state of affairs in which in place after place, in town after town, in city after city, religious laws developed over the bi-millennial exile take the place of secular ones passed by the sovereign, the Knesset. In cities like the Beit Shemesh, nestled in the western foothills of Jerusalem, there are attempts to enforce “modest” dress codes for women and to segregate by gender public transport and even sidewalks. Other towns on the Israeli periphery, like Tiberias and the aforementioned Afula are not far behind. The Israeli union of religious right parties, though for the first time headed by a woman (Ayelet Shaked) and a secular one at that, came out in support of the religious side of the Afula concert controversy, while PM Netanyahu tried as best as he could to sit this one out. The simple fact is that Netanyahu’s and the Likud’s governing coalition depends on the union, and a very uneasy one at that, of the ultra-Orthodox, the religious right, and the highly secular though very right wing Jews who had repatriated from the former Soviet Union.
In April of this year, the leader of the latter, Avigdor Lieberman, refused to hold up his end of this coalition, triggering the upcoming elections. Had his constituents disagreed, they would have made him pay at the ballot box and they yet might, but public opinion polling shows him doubling his strength in the upcoming September election rather than losing any Knesset seats.
Today’s Israel has nothing whatsoever to do with America, the American Congress, the Trump administration, or any American Jew, regardless if their name be Stephen Miller or Bernie Sanders. Israel’s fate will be determined by the outcome of the interference of two waves, waves that have been building for the past quarter century and more. The first wave everyone knows about; it is the wave of the “Startup Nation”, of Tel Aviv bar hopping and gay parades, of consumerism and runaway cost of living increases. The other wave has had much less public relations; rather, it has been building under the surface almost entirely unreported in the foreign media, but very well known to all Israelis.
This second wave is a movement towards more, not less, traditionalism, more, not less, religious observance, more, not less “Jewish” in the definition of what Israel is all about. Many in America, if they hear anything of this wave at all, are quick to chalk it to the debit account of the Ashkenazi vs. Mizrahi divide in Israeli society, but that is projection and nothing else. In the Afula incident, the singer Steinmetz is whiter than white, as Ashkenazi as they come, while the town itself is mostly Mizrahi as represented by its mayor who is the son or grandson of Moroccan repatriates. It is foolishly incorrect to use the American “white vs. black” paradigm for understanding what is a uniquely Israeli phenomenon. Israelis are one people (Jewish Israelis, that is) and all are represented (though perhaps not equally) in the two colliding waves of history. What is at stake is much more than traditions of prayer or last names or skin pigmentation. At stake is the answer to a question that, like all the questions that we the Jews have struggled with throughout history, is of critical global importance: can modernity and traditionalism coexist?
Israel cannot feed or defend itself without its body, its secular population, a population that cannot abide to live in a society that is governed by religious law. That much is clear. What is also true, however, is that Israel cannot live without its soul, the immensely rich traditions of the Jewish nation its Torah. A casual glance at the wastelands that are the both the West and the East in today’s world: at America that has its body, but has long since lost its soul and at the lands of Islam that have never built a body of innovation, of tolerance, of economic success because they have clung too tightly to tradition and religious observance makes clear the momentous import of the battle royal that is now raging for the very soul of the Jewish State. Can Israel be “or la’goyim”, a light unto the nations, can Israel show the world that modernity and tradition can indeed coexist, or will it be the latest victim of the struggle that defines our generation? Time will tell, but one thing is certain, the answer will not be found in the halls of Congress. It will make itself known on the streets of a little-known town a stone throw away from Har Meggido, a place most of us know as Armageddon.
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