“In the Name of God” – Changing the Discourse on Religion

Last Saturday’s rally for political change was memorable due to two key note speakers. Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, said that in response to his claims that Netanyhanu isn’t fit to be prime minister, the Likud responded with the jaw dropping ”how could he say that after Netanyahu found him a liver”. Yair Garbuz, an artist, made liberals run amok when he said:

“And they [the right] had even more gall to say that the thieves who took bribes were only a handful. And that the corrupt and hedonistic and greedy people were only a handful. The destroyers of democracy — a handful. Those who think that democracy means the tyranny of the majority — a handful. Kissers of amulets, idol-worshippers and people who bow down and prostrate themselves on the graves of saints — only a handful.

If all of them are only a handful, then how is it that this handful has control over us? How is it that without our being aware of it, and without any hindrance, this handful has become the majority?”

What is so offensive to people about it? He didn’t say that those were all members of the same group – the corrupt idol-worshippers destroyers of democracy. He just said that our public discourse is controlled by all of the above mentioned groups, and that their behavior is not exceptional.

And he’s right.

The sentence that earned the most attention concerns idol-worshippers prostrating themselves on graves of saints. Politicians, journalists and civil society members condemned it as anti-religious and racist against Mizrachim. The liberal left was extremely vocal, because they didn’t want to indulge the stigma of Ashkenazi leftist liberal kibbutz members looking down on blue collar conservative Mizrachim – especially not so close to an election.

But why? He never said he was referring to Mizrachi people in particular, or even religious ones in general. He pointed to a phenomenon of fundamentalists (be they Ashkenazim that travel to Uman on Rosh Ha-Shana, or Mizrachim that travel to Sefad) who hijack the public discourse on religion. They claim ownership of religion at large, of virtues, of morals, and of state funds.

It is ironic that the critics were quick to label Garbuz as racist. It shows how they perceive those people and themselves.

And while the response from the conservatives was fairly obvious, the response from the left was disappointing and offensive. Herzog’s and Galon’s instinct to distance themselves from Garboz and his comments, and state the equivalent of “some of my best friends are religious” just proves how right he was with his statement.

What does Herzog have to do with religious life? When was the last time he has been to a synagogue? It doesn’t really matter, but we can all make an educated guess and say – quite some time ago. And yet, his immediate response was “I’m religious, I believe in God, I go to synagogue”. Galon herself told Ha’aretz a few weeks ago that she’s an atheist, but she was also quick to condemn Garboz. What can’t they stand up for themselves? Why do they have to apologize?

When Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Chris Hitchens publish their atheist world view they’re labeled as offensive to religious people. But they are not. If Arie Dery, chairman of Shas, openly says to secular Israelis – don’t oppress us, because the day will come in 20-30 years when we’re the majority, and we’ll repay by not oppressing you – why can’t secular people speak their minds without being apologetic?

Garboz was talking about a phenomenon. Parties like Shas, Yahad, Yehadut Ha-Tora, control religious discourse and somehow become infallible. Dery went to jail for abusing state funds, Eli Yishay, head of Yahad, is supported by religious fundamentalists that couldn’t care less about Hebrew Israel, and wish to restore religious law, Yehadut Ha-Tora was in the center of some epic child abuse incidents, where rabbi’s affiliated with the party were charged with pedophilia. Many of them do not represent religion. They represent themselves and hide behind a yamaka and a shtreimel.

They do not advance their communities. They make them preserve their middle ages way of life, they keep them blind and afraid of modernity all for their political power.

We must stop apologizing, we must stand behind our beliefs – one can live their life however they wish between the four walls of their house, but if one wishes to be a productive member of society they have to enter the public sphere, live life according to modern values, and not force their beliefs on us.

About the Author
Son to immigrant parents from the FSU, holds a BA in Economics and MBA from Tel Aviv University. Served as a Captain in the IDF
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