Israel was founded by a secular nationalist movement on secular nationalist principles and it must remain a secular nationalist state
One of the most critical and crucial events in the formation of the modern State of Israel is the story of Altalena, a ship loaded with armaments destined for future prime minister Menachem Begin’s “Irgun” militia. Chartered in Europe and arriving at the coast of Israel in June of 1948 barely a month after Israel’s declaration of independence, Altalena wished to deliver its cargo into the hands of the Irgun militia rather than to the newly formed Israel Defense Force, comprising as it was mostly from the ranks of the “Haganah”, Irgun’s bitter rival in the days before independence.
David Ben-Gurion, the first Israeli PM, refused to allow the transfer of arms to the Irgun and Israel fought its first (albeit brief) and hopefully last civil war in close to two millennia. The IDF fired on Altalena, which fired back before being set on fire and sinking. Three IDF soldiers and 16 Irgun fighters, all Jews, were killed. Invaluable arms, crucial for the War of Independence that had only just begun, were lost. Bad blood lasted for lifetimes. It was all worth it.
It was worth it because there can only be one government and one military if a state wishes to live and prosper. There can be no factions, no militias, no “well-meaning” rogue elements. Ben-Gurion’s action likely secured the victory in the War of Independence and prevented a second Holocaust only three years after the “first” one. As the war unfolded, many hard and unpopular decisions had to be made. Emaciated Holocaust survivors straight from the boats they had just come on from the killing fields of Europe were sent to die a certain death fighting battles they were never intended to win, but which tied up enemy forces while seasoned IDF units could fight and win on more critical battlegrounds. Established towns and villages in the heart of our historical homeland had to be abandoned as was the case with Gush Etzion because defending them meant losing more critical and strategically important parts of the Jewish State. None of these decisions would have been possible, orders would have been defied, a much more devastating civil war would have broken out in the midst of an all out Arab attack, had Ben-Gurion not shown the cold-blooded ruthlessness he had shown with Altalena.
Today, Israel is exactly one week away from one of the most critical elections in its seven plus decade history and one of the most important events in the over three millennia long history of its people. Whenever the Jews, the People of Israel suffered historical setbacks it had always been due to internal strife, to the proliferation of factions, to hatred among brothers. The glory that was the united kingdom of Israel couldn’t outlast its second monarch, Solomon, succumbing to the internecine hatred between the desert tribes of Judah and Shimon and the ten tribes of the North. Five centuries later, the kingdom of Judea suffered exile because Gedaliah, the Babylonian appointed governor, himself of the Judean elite, was slaughtered by other factions who were hoping to stage a hopeless revolt backed by empty promises from Egypt, long since in deep decline.
The victory of the Hasmoneans of Hanukkah’s fame against the Seleucids was brought to naught by their infighting and greed and the revolts against Rome, though likely doomed to failure in any case, drained the life-force of the Jews and condemned them to nearly two millennia of exile and genocide.
This horrendous outcome, this tragedy, this original Holocaust that gave birth to every single one that followed including the last one was documented in excruciating detail by the Rabbis and the Sages of the period immediately following the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 AD. They did not fail to perform an unflinching post-mortem and they arrived at the only possible conclusion: our tragedy was entirely of our own making. It was caused by the futile, inexplicable, toxic hatred of one Jew to another. This hatred, this propensity to internal division is the one thing, the only thing, that can defeat us, they concluded.
Unfortunately, incredibly, those Israelis that are the best versed in the writings of the Sages are also the most prone even today to factionalism and internecine hatred. Religious Israelis are represented today by no less than four parties vying for their votes to the new Knesset and it would have been more had not PM Netanyahu gone to massive pains to consolidate, even somewhat, the religious vote.
Alone among all Israelis including even the non-Jewish ones like the Druze, religious Israelis demand that certain conditions be met if they are to serve in the national defense force, the IDF. They need more kosher food than the already kosher food that is standard issue, they demand that no women soldiers come anywhere near them, they refuse to participate in cultural events that involve female singers, but most damningly, they demand that the IDF form units that are tailor-made to their particular faction of observance. This trend is kryptonite to Israeli and Jewish independence and it must be resisted at all costs. Service in the national defense force is an incredible privilege that our generation, only the second or third after a hundred before it, merited to participate in. No condition of service, no special consideration is even remotely acceptable. You serve, or you don’t and you face the consequences stated in the law. That is all.
There can be no factions in the IDF and no one can serve in it who will consider, even for a millisecond, disobeying the order of a Druze or a secular Jewish officer because his Rabbi would have disagreed with it. Prayer shawls and phylacteries belong in synagogues, not in tanks. We are not fighting holy wars, we are defending our homeland against aggressors. I know that many a Jewish heart, particularly among diaspora Jews who have never served or fought, melts when they see an IDF soldier in full prayer regalia. The same image gives me, a veteran of the IDF and someone who has experienced war, the greatest feeling of unease.
Of course, I have no problem with anyone wrapping themselves in a talit (prayer shawl) and wearing a tefillin (phylacteries) for morning prayers, but I have a real problem with the propaganda usage of this image. I rarely pray and when I served my shawl and my phylacteries remained hidden in the depth of my mom’s closet, never making it to base or to battle. Most IDF soldiers are like me in that respect and we are no less motivated, no less brave, no less ideologically committed to the survival of our homeland than anyone, regardless of their observance status.
I have always been a Likud voter and a staunch supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu. There can be little doubt in my mind that he has already earned for himself a safe and secure place among the greatest leaders of our nation. But his increasingly close alliance with the religious factions in Israeli politics, an alliance whose sole purpose is to keep him in power, is not for me. I am not going to vote next week because I now live in exile, but if I were to vote, I would likely cast my vote, for the first time in my 56 years, for someone other than the Likud party with Netanyahu at the helm.
I dislike the Israeli left and even center-left with their Ashkenazi-centered politics and their talk of the long since discredited “two-state solution”, but I remember that Israel survived in its pre-1967 borders when it was orders of magnitude weaker than it is today. It survived the horrendous mistake of the Oslo agreements that brought the archetypal terrorist group PLO into our heartland and into Gaza. It survived the unilateral and unnecessary withdrawals from Gaza and South Lebanon, making every inch of Israel a target for Hezbollah and Hamas rockets.
These mistakes were strategic, no doubt, but they are survivable. What Israel cannot survive is allowing the factionalism that so plagues the Israeli religious community to metastasize into the mainstream. What Israel cannot afford at any cost is a military that makes special arrangements for anyone based on any principle or characteristic. What Israel needs now, what two thirds of Jewish Israelis want, is a government that does not include any religious parties. Religiously observant Israelis need to learn a lesson in political humility and internalize the fact that Israel was established as a Jewish, but secular political entity by a secular movement of national rather than religious revival, a movement we know as Zionism.
Zionism, with its practical, pragmatic approach, with its emphasis on the people and the land first and religion last is the only way to continued Jewish independence in our historical homeland. Israel must remain a country that welcomes all its inhabitants in leading meaningful lives as Jews or Gentiles, as observant or non-observant, religious or secular. There can be no segregation by gender in public spaces outside of synagogues, no dress codes on city streets, no matter who lives there and what their belief systems are. There can be no restrictions on people driving or shopping on the Sabbath, should they choose to do so. These things are at the foundation of making Israel what it is today, a vibrant country that is a leader in technology, fashion, cuisine, and simply having a great time.
Israel will never lose to an external enemy again; let’s make sure we don’t lose to our own self-righteousness and factionalism. Too much is at stake, too may sacrifices have been made to allow that to happen once again.
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