Instead of Catering to Anti-Religious Bigotry, Israeli Secularist Politicians Should Learn from David Ben-Gurion

September 6, 2019 | David M. Weinberg
About the author: David M. Weinberg is a writer and lobbyist on defense, diplomatic, and Jewish affairs, and a former senior advisor to the Tikvah Fund in Israel. He also is a widely published kosher wine enthusiast.

With Israeli elections on the horizon, David M. Weinberg notes that a number of politicians—from the right-wing secularist Avigdor Liberman to the left-wing Stav Shafrir to the centrist Yair Lapid—have been trying to gain votes by scapegoating Ḥaredim and stoking fears of disappearing religious freedom. Weinberg finds the tenor of these appeals both hysterical and intolerant:

The religion-baiting campaigns of these politicians goes . . . beyond expected (and sometimes justifiable) criticism of the ḥaredi-ized rabbinic bureaucracy. . . . If such [rhetoric] were to be used [in the Diaspora], every Jewish defense agency would be screaming bloody murder. I hear things like this [from speeches and campaign advertisements]: rabbis are out to indoctrinate your children and subjugate your women; religious Jews will imprison you (in your home on Shabbat), spoil your food (via kashrut impositions), and restrict your sexual freedoms (especially LGBTQ rights).

It’s time to reassert some rationality and moderation in national debates over matters of religion and state, or faith and democracy. . . . I am convinced that the vast majority of Israelis are profoundly uncomfortable with the current anti-religious rabble-rousing. Disagreements about matters of faith and policy can be adjudicated reasonably out of respect for both tradition and [personal freedom]. And we are, ultimately and unquestionably, a nation of believers and democrats.

Not so long ago, the steadfast leaders of the socialist-secularist Zionist left like David Ben-Gurion had no problem articulating their love for Jewish erudition and acting on their desire that all Israeli youth be knowledgeable of Jewish texts. Ben-Gurion would have angrily rejected the simplistic and false dichotomy that [some politicians] promote about Judaism and liberalism. “There is no wall of separation in Israel between Judaism and humanism,” wrote Ben-Gurion in 1954. “Our physical and spiritual lives are entirely integrated in one overarching and embracing framework: Jewish sovereignty.”

We need politicians like Ben-Gurion . . . today; men of reflection whose non-religious ideological moorings were secure and deep enough to embrace [both] Jewish and Zionist roots.

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