Jan 21, 2002
Originally, Zionism, the political current which led to the setting up of Israel, was not a product of the Jewish religious hierarchy, but a nationalist reaction to the situation in which Europe’s Jews found themselves. While the Zionist movement always had a religious wing, its main body of activists was made of secular nationalists among whom many even called themselves “socialists”. In particular all the Israeli prime ministers from 1948 to 1974 – Ben Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Levy Eskhol, Golda Meir and Yitzakh Rabin – were part of this latter group.
And yet religion permeates everything in the Israeli state which eventually came out of the Zionist movement. State institutions are not subjected to the authority of the rabbis. But the Jewish religion is the official state religion and many aspects of social life are entrusted to their hands – for instance birth and death registrations, marriages, areas of welfare and education. There is no such thing as a civil marriage, and marriages between Jews and non-Jews are not possible. All sorts of material advantages, particularly in terms of housing and jobs, are available to religious Jews and not to others – be they atheists, Christians, or Palestinians.
The role of religion in today’s Israel did not come out of nowhere. It was the result of a conscious choice on the part of the Zionist movement which presided over the creation of the new state in 1947, and more specifically on the part of its left-wing which played a vital role in this process.
The Jewish immigrants who fled to Palestine in the years before and after World War II came from many different parts of the world. Many had a long tradition of collective struggle – through the trade-union movement or the socialist and communist movements. Most had never subscribed to Zionism or any kind of Jewish nationalism. Collectively they were determined to build a new society, free of the injustices, discrimination and poverty that they had experienced in their native countries, a society that would never again allow any form of dictatorship.
For the left-wing Zionist leaders, the problem was not to make the best of the unprecedented human potential that they had at hand. It was, on the contrary, to constrain the outlook of the settlers so as to reduce their expectations and ambitions to a narrow nationalist perspective. And because the settlers’ sense of identity was far too open-minded to fit into the ionist perspective, this sense of identity had to be built from scratch, using biblical mumbo-jumbo to please the Zionist right.
The left Zionists went out of their way to find justifications in the ancient biblical texts for their nationalist claim that the Jewish population “owned” Palestine – the gift of the “promised land” made by Jehovah to Moses.
Needless to say, the arguments borrowed from the Bible to justify the setting up of Israel were not exactly progressive. After all, for anyone who reads the Bible without the blinkers of religious faith, it is a crude testimony to the barbaric society based on slavery at the time when it was written. Its many heroes are, just as the god it portrays, as ruthless and contemptuous of the poor as the society which produced them. And yet it is from this Bible that Zionism dug up justifications for everything – whether for the “historical” roots of the Israel-Arab conflict or the rights of the Jewish people over Palestine.
In 1948, when the British mandate over Palestine came to an end, the Israeli state was declared as a Jewish state which would be open to all Jews, provided they could prove they were Jews. But how could one prove Jewishness, if not by reference to the Jewish religion? And yet all Zionist parties signed the declaration of independence, with its religious slant – and not just Ben Gurion’s Labor party, but also the social-democratic party Mapam, which had been advocating a bi-national state including both Arabs and Jews on equal terms.
If religion bears so heavily on today’s Israel, it is due to this initial choice to base the legitimacy of the state on religion. Since then the grip of religion has been further reinforced by using religious pretexts to justify Israel’s position in its on-going conflict with its Arab neighbors. Israel’s refusal to withdraw from the Palestinian territories occupied during the 1967 war, for example, or its policy of developing settler colonies in the Gaza strip and the West Bank, have been justified on biblical grounds. But each time the Israeli government resorts to such pretexts to justify its policies, it only reinforces the religious far right.
Today there is a long list of far-right religious parties in Israel. There is no difference between the hysterical rabbis who form the core of some parties and the so-called “radical” Iranian mullahs or the Taliban for that matter. These rabbis, who enjoy life as parasites of society under the pretext that they have a spiritual role to play, are in the habit of inviting their followers to stone women who dress or behave “indecently.”
But where the religious far-right is most active, of course, is in the armed struggle against the Palestinian population. One of its organizations, Gush Enim (the Bloc of Faithful) was founded in the 1960s by Rabbi Moshe Levinger. It pioneered the setting up of Jewish settler colonies in Hebron in 1968. Since then, Gush Enim has been running an anti-Palestinian hate campaign, going so far as to claim, in the name of the Bible, that killing Arabs is a way of honoring God. At the same time it recruited youth in the poorest Jewish areas, giving them guns to help “defend” settler colonies. Another demagogue, Rabbi Kahane, who had immigrated from the USA in the 1970s, became famous for similar reasons. His overtly racist grouping Kakh, which can be translated as “so be it,” aimed at terrorizing the Palestinian population out of the West Bank. Eventually the chickens came home to roost when Kahane was shot dead by a Palestinian during a visit to the USA in 1990.
Of course such crazies can be found in any country. But the policy of setting up Jewish colonies in the Palestinian territories has given these far-right groups a disproportionate political role and influence. Since the setting up of the National Palestinian Administration following the Oslo accord, the far-right has effectively acted as an unofficial auxiliary militia for the Israeli army inside the so-called “autonomous” Palestinian territories.
For the particular brand of fundamentalism represented by the Jewish religious far-right, as it has developed over the past thirty years, the enforcement of religious principles in day-to-day life appears, therefore, as a secondary issue. Its main concern is to champion Israel’s expansionist policy. It is a kind of fundamentalism which holds enormous dangers for the future, both for the Israeli population and for the Palestinians.
While the Palestinians have been direct victims of the choice to turn what had once been Palestine into an exclusively Jewish state, the Jewish people themselves have and will continue to suffer horrible consequences from this besieged fortress in which Zionism trapped them.
The decision to found Israel as a religious state restricted to Jews resulted in a catastrophe of historical dimensions in the Middle-East.