Shulamit Binah

Why Pluralism?

As a political and national way of life, Jewish pluralism in the State of Israel has never been a success story.  Israeli politics is usually dominated by well-defined routes, single-dimensional and one-sided, whether on the right or left side of the political map. These paths have emerged from a dialectical or axiomatic assumption that they are always right. My late mother used to say that those who are always right must have swallowed “die gantze chochme” (in Yiddish: the entire human wisdom).  So why deal with Jewish pluralism all of a sudden?

Perhaps this is the apparent outcome of the severe national and social strife forced upon us by the Israeli Right, which presents a façade of national values such as Greater Israel or the claim that Israel is first and foremost a “Jewish” rather than a “democratic” state. However, it may very well be a smokescreen for the actual effort, which is to rescue Benjamin Netanyahu from the fear of potential time in prison. On the other hand, the liberal side of Israel, which is usually divided between factions and sub-currents on questions of religion and state, occupation, and other matters of importance, fought for its very homeland. Thus, the many fractions had to put aside minor differences and unite. Ironically, this may be Netanyahu’s main legacy, namely the unification or at least practical integration of the fragments of the Left into one camp of an unending protest against the regime coup. This protest, which is now going on for thirty-six consecutive weeks, reflects the generally liberal values of most of Israel’s citizens.

Until now, the non-Orthodox and secular majority in the State of Israel has taken a conciliatory and inclusive approach towards the religious minority. They have absorbed the maxim attributed to Prof. Shlomo Avineri, namely that although Israelis hardly visit the synagogue, the synagogue they exclude is an Orthodox one. But the current confrontation, which stems from the need to “save Bibi,” has also thrown a blinding flash of light on the exploitation of power by ultra-Orthodox and Messianic coalition members. In turn, this arouses opposition and rejection from most of the Israeli public, including significant parts of the more moderate religious segment.

The increasingly radicalized religious legislation increases the political power of the ultra-Orthodox far beyond their actual rate, which is estimated at no more than 13 percent of the population. Given the continuous political deadlock, the ultra-Orthodox parties are constantly promoting outrageous legislation that changes the character of the state: exclusion of women in the public sphere (including commercial banners), demonization of the LGBTQ phenomenon, across-the-board exemption from military service, and draining governmental agencies of astronomical sums of money to be pumped into medieval-type Haredi education without core curriculum, without math, English or humanities and sufficient training for today’s economy – all of which at the expense of the welfare of the general public that serves and pays taxes.

Beyond these tangible contents, the spirit of the messianic public, headed by Messrs. Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, conveys slurs and racism against Arabs, support for settlers’ violence against Palestinians, and igniting terror while attaching IDF forces to the defense of far-flung settlements. This, in turn, erodes the power of the military in policing missions as the army does not sufficiently train for a future war that may still occur. All of these lead to expressions of deep criticism and rage against the ultra-Orthodox public as a whole, and not only against its leaders.

As a supporter of pluralism, I oppose generalizations and expressions of hatred against an entire public, any public. Moreover, I feel sorry for those talented ultra-Orthodox children who are denied core curriculum and can never be influential scientists, inventors, innovators, exemplary writers, and intellectuals. At most, some of them, if they pass a state-funded preparatory course, may be able to acquire low to mid-level jobs. I am also sorry for ultra-Orthodox women, even if they see their life goal as raising many children and providing for their eternally studious husbands.

Meanwhile, on the secular and general side, consistent and almost hysterical opposition to anything that smells of “religion” is immediately dubbed “religionization” and is thus ostracized.  This misses the point, and, in fact, “it throws out the baby with the tub water.” Secular boys and girls are not sufficiently exposed to the richness of their Jewish roots. Instead, in fact, it further entrenches the intolerable monopoly that Orthodox Judaism, both ultra-Orthodox and Messianic, has claimed over the entire wealth of Jewish values.

The principles and the teachings of Judaism are precious assets that must never be given up. They are the basis of our sovereign existence in this land and are expressed in most Jewish communities around the world, which are led by rabbis who are primarily (but not entirely) Reform and Conservative. The integration of these principles into the Israeli education system will only strengthen the Zionist character of Israel as well as the state’s connection to Diaspora Jews. They represent proud Jewish pluralism, with liberal principles that do not sanctify a single way to identify with Jewish heritage.  They emphasize social justice and civil equality, including gender equality for all citizens and human values for all. Tolerance for various opinions, other religions, sexual preferences, and even an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle for individuals who so choose, as long as they respect the laws of the land, as they do in the countries in which they live, if only because of the old Jewish writ that “the law of the land is the binding law” (דינא דמלכותא דינא ).

There are many advantages to the inclusion of Jewish studies given by rabbis of both genders and by many non-Orthodox Jews in the state educational system. Among other things, it instills a Jewish historical and cultural heritage and the values of freedom and democracy without coercion of non-observant audiences. Instilling tolerance, a culture of debate, respect for civil rights, social justice, and support for the less opportune.  Strengthening Israeli identity with universal values, including protecting the environment and “repairing the world” (Tikkun Olam), gender equality, and fostering and deepening the vital connection with Diaspora Jewry, most of which is not ultra-Orthodox or messianic (less than fifteen percent of American Jews define themselves as Orthodox!), but is essential to ensuring the continued physical and spiritual existence of the Jewish state.

Some fear, due to lack of acquaintance, that such education will be a harbinger of religious coercion that may lead to the dreaded “religionization” or persuasion to adopt a religious way of life. My answer is that the message of the non-Orthodox Jewish movements is the best vaccine against the coercive message of unwelcome “religionization.” Judaism is not a single and exclusive way of life; knowledge of Judaism and Jewish heritage is the best response against the cunning Orthodox missionaries that appropriate all of Judaism and present the secular as an “empty cart,” ignoring the magnificent work created here, namely the State of Israel.

Now is the time to deepen pluralism in our discourse. Perhaps we would have continued to doze in our upright country, and we would not have mobilized and acted to do so without the violent attack by Netanyahu and his supporters in their regime coup. But now, it is awakened, and we are again hearing the sirens wailing as we did on Yom Kippur in 1973; we must mobilize to defend the values of a free and liberal Israel fiercely, and there is no better way to do so than to deepen our Jewish pluralism.

About the Author
An expert in Middle Eastern affairs, Shulamit Binah’s book, UNITED STATES – IRAQ BILATERAL RELATIONS, Confusion and Misperception 1967 to 1979, has been published by Valentine-Mitchell (London 2018). Dr. Binah retired from government service after a full career in analysis and evaluation. She lives in Israel.
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