The leak of Chief Rabbi Yosef’s careless and unwise remarks was intended to disrupt the secular-religious coalition on which the Israeli right depends to win the March 2nd election
It is always worth remembering that Zionism and its crowning achievement, the state of Israel were a startup that was both conceived and executed by secular Ashkenazi Jews. These folks were fiercely loyal to their Jewish identity and to the Land of Israel as their one and only homeland, but held a dim (at best) view of Judaism the religion and of Jews who adhered to it.
Sephardi, Mizrahi, and observant Ashkenazi Jews were johnny come latelys to Zionism, in some cases voluntarily, in others only because Israel offered the only safe option, the only survivable alternative. The contributions that observant Jews of all stripes have made to Israel’s remarkable success cannot be overstated, but it was not originally their idea. If Israel is indeed the “seed of our deliverance” as they have put it, they were not among those who had planted that seed.
When the time came to declare independence, observant Jews in the so-called “Yeshuv”, the proto-Jewish state that existed during the late Ottoman Empire and subsequent British mandate in Palestine, were few and politically almost powerless. The totally secular Jew, David Ben-Gurion, who held nearly all the power, believing it to be of the highest importance that Israel maintain its Jewish character, established the office of the Chief Rabbinate and gave it authority over Jewish family law and Jewish conversions. Two Chief Rabbis were appointed, a Sephardi and an Ashkenazi one.
Today, Israel is having an identity crisis along the secular-religious or the observant-nonobservant fault lines. This crisis has now led to an unprecedented third in a row general election and it alone has the power to lead to the eventual destruction of the state of Israel.
At the base of this crisis, at the bottom of the fault line lie the seemingly innocuous words “seed of our deliverance”. Many very religious Jews have been and still are ardent opponents of Zionism and hence of Israel on the grounds that “geulah”, deliverance, can only be accomplished by the Messiah, a king from the House of David. The religious Zionist movement solved the seemingly unsolvable, bridged the seemingly unbridgeable reality, that of deliverance being brought about by a bunch of Eastern European Jews who did not observe the Sabbath and did not own prayer shawls or phylacteries and their bimillennial faith as to how deliverance SHOULD be brought about. It did so by declaring secular Zionism a “beginning”, a means to an end so to speak, a gateway to the “real” deliverance.
But this is where the two parts of the Zionist movement, the secular and the religious, part ways. This is what makes their alliance, just that, an alliance of convenience, not really a coming together, not a real unity. For secular Zionists such as myself and two thirds of all Jewish Israelis, a secular state of Israel is not the beginning, it is the end, the final destination of our deliverance. We have no desire to see Israel become more religious; on the contrary, we are determined that it does not.
Polities who have adopted religion as their guiding political philosophy have always historically failed. France’s long decline can be traced to the expulsion of the Huguenots by Cardinal Richelieu and the primacy of catholicism in that country. Today, the Islamic world is mired in backwardness precisely because a religion, Islam, is its guiding political principle. The American Founding Fathers knew this well, which is why they, while never promoting an anti-religious sentiment, nevertheless foreclosed religion from being used as a governing or political principle.
If Israel is to survive, it must remain staunchly secular and maintain at all costs the bargain struck by David Ben Gurion. Unfortunately, this bargain is being attacked from both sides of the divide, but more so from the religious one. Today, words uttered by the Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef in a closed forum were leaked. In his diatribe, Yosef declared that the so-called “Russians” were mostly not Jewish and were actively hostile to Judaism. He said that many of them frequented churches and that they were brought to Israel specifically to undermine its Jewish character and serve as an electoral “counterweight” to the haredi or ultra-Orthodox population. Yosef’s most dangerous words were his dismissal of countless conversions, all completely legal and most performed by rabbis who he himself picked out and who worked for him at the office of the Chief Rabbinate as illegitimate. Imagine that you undergo a conversion by an Orthodox rabbi who is an Israeli government employee, only to hear his boss say that it was all for naught and your conversion was null and void!
It is impossible to overestimate the sheer stupidity and ignorance of these statements, statements whose leak at this time is doubtlessly calculated by nefarious actors to further undermine the already teetering secular-religious alliance, an alliance upon which the fates of the Israeli right in general and of PM Netanyahu in particular are precariously resting.
If any “Russian” Israelis who typically vote for Israel Beitenu and its leader Avigdor Lieberman because they believe him to be both right wing and stridently secular were now beginning to lose faith in his commitment to robust national defense and territorial integrity and were considering switching their allegiance to Netanyahu’s Likud, Yosef’s attack on them served as a stark reminder why they must vote Lieberman and protect their own sectorial interests first.
This IED that was exploded against the Israeli right by the clueless and dangerous Yosef and by whomever leaked his reckless words at this particular time did not go unnoticed. Israeli right, from Netanyahu himself to many prominent rabbis, Sephardi and Ashkenazi alike, issued stern condemnations. From the far secular part of the spectrum, demands for Yosef’s resignation or dismissal were heard. But the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox leaders of the Torah Judaism party expressed unconditional support for the Chief Rabbi and his words.
Coincidentally, but perhaps more tellingly than any other statement, two more municipalities announced today that they would be joining the public transport on the Sabbath pilot that was initiated a few weeks ago by the city of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo.
This is who we are as Israelis. We care deeply about our religion. We have scrolls with Torah passages on the doorjambs of our homes and offices and we kiss them on our way to eat shrimp and pork for lunch. We light Sabbath candles on Sabbath night and drive to the beach on Saturday morning. We balance, precariously, our Land, our Nation, and our Torah. Those, like Yosef and Lieberman who wish to unbalance us for nothing but their own personal power trips are the destroyers of our nation. I pray that they fail and vanish from our history like so many false prophets before them.
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