The ‘religionization’ of Israel is troubling, but the fears about it are hysterical


Religionization! Religionization! To read the newspaper headlines in Israel, to view its documentary films and attend its expert panels with academics, a stranger might think that upon landing at Ben Gurion Airport, he or she will have arrived at nothing less than a Hebrew-speaking version of Iran.

According to those who fear for Israel’s Jewish and democratic future, religionization (“ha’datah” in Hebrew) is everywhere. Within Israel’s educational system, right-wing and religious ministers are infusing class curricula with religious content. The justice system in the country increasingly includes judges and other senior level officials who are religious, and are threatening, so it appears, to implement “Hebrew” law. Israel’s communications sector is suddenly being overrun by men wearing skull caps, who are bringing their worldviews and values from home to the workplace. The chief of police is religious as well. And at what point will the people’s army transform into God’s army?

In such an atmosphere, the use of any Jewish content in official government statements; any attempt by a religious person to stand up for her rights; the celebration of any Jewish holiday at any secular school anywhere, and every mention of God within the context of the Israel Defense Forces is more proof that religion is taking over our lives — that we are in the throes of a terrible process of religionization.

The reality, however, is clearly different from this perception. Tel Aviv is not Tehran. Neither is it Jerusalem. The IDF is fighting for the country and its people, not God. Israel’s educational system is not rediscovering religion en masse. And while the Israeli public is most certainly changing, it’s actually doing so in the direction of secularization. The status quo in the country between religion and state is long since dead. Commercial and leisure activities during the Sabbath are more widespread today than in the past and homosexual couples are receiving official recognition. All this in spite of the fact that for 30 years there has existed an ultra-religious veto, overtly or covertly, within the government.

Shuki Friedman (Israel Democracy Institute)

Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. I, as well as many citizens, religious and secular, believe that these two characteristics are critical to the country’s existence. Just as Israel’s Jewish image and identity must be cultivated, so must its democratic character and liberal and humanistic values. And no, there is no contradiction between Jewish and democratic.

The exact balance between these values is not gospel. Neither is it the exclusive knowledge of the religious or secular. Even the Supreme Court, which has occasionally had to rule on these issues, has often done so mechanically. How then can we determine the location of the golden mean? Only through public discussion that is serious and open to all. Only by listening to one another and being willing to understand the value of creating a synthesis between these two values, and acknowledging the need to sometimes compromise. Only then will it be possible for the unique and valuable combination – a Jewish and democratic state – to thrive.

Nevertheless, critics of religionization talk about it as if it is a demon uniquely threatening Israel’s culture and society. This is the easy way out for politicians, activists, members of the media and the academy. When there is a common enemy that is as threatening as the religious demon it is much easier to close ranks, hiding together behind the issue.

Yet demonizing religion comes with a price. And the price is high. The price is the suppression of all public debate on this and related issues. The price is the stifling of every serious attempt to address in an open and comprehensive manner the topic of religion and state, and the relationship between Judaism and democracy. Fear-mongering over the religious demon leads to exaggerated, hysterical descriptions that occur whenever an attempt is made to add a Jewish dimension to the Israeli public sphere, or to promote the expression of Jewish spiritual treasures not only inside of synagogues but within Israeli life itself.

The hysteria over this issue is dragging us straight to the bottom. Instead of dialogue, we are being subjected to a cacophony of screaming from all sides. This demon must be put back in the closet, which should then be buried deep in the ground. In place of this demon, the public sphere will be filled with serious and meaningful dialogue on the Jewish and democratic values of Israel.

(Shuki Friedman is the director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Religion, Nation and State and a law professor at Peres Academic Center.)

Once in a lifetime


I don’t know about you, but I’ve had it up to here with once-in-a-lifetime events.

Katrina was once in a lifetime. The 2004 tsunami was once in a lifetime. This past year’s wildfires were the worst blazes in living memory. Every other month seems to bring an epic rain or snow that is said to be the storm of the century. And don’t get me started on the polar ice cap.

George W. Bush, the worst president in American history, will turn out to be, God willing, once in a lifetime, as will the officially sanctioned use of torture by American interrogators, the subjugation of the Justice Department by a bunch of right-wing 20-something hacks, and the grotesque intervention of Congress into the Terry Schiavo case. If Dick Cheney isn’t once in a lifetime, there is reason to doubt the existence of divine mercy.

The depth of the unfolding recession, for those who did not experience the Great Depression, is now forecast to be once in a lifetime. Bernie Madoff’s breathtaking Ponzi scheme is — one can only hope — once in a lifetime. The demise of Lehman Brothers, founded in 1850, is once in a lifetime, as will be the extinction of Levitz, the 97-year-old furniture chain, and (as is plausible) of Dodge (b. 1914) and Kmart (b. 1962).

Until this recession, India and China were poised to overtake the U.S. economy, which would surely constitute a once-in-a-lifetime development, like the fall of communism, tobacco, butter, girdles and Esperanto.

The impending deaths of the print newspaper, the network evening news and the television networks themselves — like the prior deaths of the buggy, vaudeville and silent movies — are bound to be experienced as once in a lifetime. The demises of slide rules, typewriters, Polaroid instant cameras and VHS tapes each marked the end of an era. TV Guide is going the route of Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, Look and Life; when either Time or Newsweek folds, its surviving competitor will doubtless send it off with a once-in-a-lifetime obit.

Sept. 11 was once in a lifetime, unless you lived through Pearl Harbor. It is wishful thinking to imagine that the malicious explosion of a nuclear device is not in the world’s foreseeable future, and if, keinahora, that happens, it will surely be labeled — optimistically — once in a lifetime.

On the upside, the election of a black American president is totally without precedent, and it is not inconceivable that a woman will eventually follow him to the White House, though if it’s Sarah Palin, she stands a decent chance of wresting worst-ever laurels from Bush.

My discomfort at being crowded by this surfeit of once-in-a-lifetime happenings is partly about hype, and mostly about mental hygiene.

The mainstream news media have no vested interest in proportionality. With so many things competing for our attention, the only way for media-owning corporations to capture our eyeballs is to inflate everything to Armageddon dimensions. Every lurid local crime becomes a national melodrama; every flare-up on the planet is depicted as a precursor to World War III; every scandal is Watergate, or something-else-gate. We are inundated with the Ten Worst This and Ten Best That, while long-simmering atrocities truly deserving of notice, like Darfur or the tuberculosis pandemic, barely make it onto the radar screen.

No wonder the world has the jitters. We are daily assaulted by so much hyperbole that it is nearly impossible to know what is important any more. It is undeniable that we live in a time of big change, but if we did not also live in a time of big media, I am not convinced that we would experience our lives as a relentless onslaught of cliffhangers, crises and catastrophes.

To every thing, Ecclesiastes tells us, there is a season, but you wouldn’t know it from the media, which know only one season, which is BREAKING NEWS. Real life has natural rhythms; it plays out on many stages, from the personal and private to the public and historical. But the culture of THIS JUST IN homogenizes those differences. Its imperative is to monetize our attention, and the easiest way to do that is to see as much as possible through once-in-a-lifetime lenses.

I don’t mean to diminish the pain of the economic meltdown, or the significance of climate change, or the symbolic breakthrough of the Obama inauguration or the dizzying transformations being wrought by technology. But it does no good for us as citizens if everything is as screamingly urgent as everything else, and it does no good for us as people if our nervous systems are constantly being bombarded by superlatives. How can our leaders set priorities, how will we ever agree on trade-offs, if public discourse only consists of capital letters? How can we linger in the intimacies and mysteries of existence, how will we truly know what’s worth caring about, if shock and rupture is the only language our culture knows how to speak?

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears here weekly. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.