Israeli Independence Day: Yom Ha'atzmaut
By N. Shuldig
There has been an unprecedented focus in the Israeli news on the clashes between the religious and the secular public in the last few months. The public has witnessed such disgusting episodes as religious men spitting on schoolgirls, cursing female soldiers and mayhem in the streets all casting a difficult shadow upon the religious sector.
It is an understatement to say that in this tiny Jewish state there is a war of values. To anyone with minimum familiarity with Israel will know that there is an undercover battle between the secular lifestyle and that of the religious.
Let us pause for a moment and begin to understand in which direction the State of Israel is heading.
Looking back the many years since the creation of the state, we can see a changing role of the religious vis-à-vis the mainstream secular life in the tiny state. Before the beginning of the state, the religious were few and were marginalized to the sidelines and tolerated as just being ultra-Orthodox relics of the past, people who spent their time learning Torah and prayer in a cloistered world. The ultra-Orthodox secluded themselves away from the modern secular pioneers who expended their energies to create and build a new state. Few served in the forerunner to the Israeli Defense Forces, the Haganah, the Lechi, and the Irgun. (A few did come out of their ultra-Orthodox world and join one of the fighting groups, but as mentioned, just a small percentage of the total.)
Even after the War for Independence (1948) and statehood commenced, Ben Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister, saw fit to continue to keep the ultra-Orthodox marginalized and so he gave them an exemption from the army if they could prove that they were busy learning Torah. In reality, Ben Gurion did not want the religious in the army or have an influence in the state and since they were few compared to the secular public a understanding was made that if they silently went with the government, the government would give them financial aid. The seculars had little to do with the ultra-Orthodox and the exemption did little harm and even brought minor support to Ben Gurion.
Back in those days things and thoughts were different than they are today. Ben Gurion and his contemporaries envisioned a socialist state based on the European models that he had experienced in Europe and was so popular in those times. Indeed at the time of the formation of the state, it was the government that set up many key industries that directly benefited the population. As many years passed, the socialist aspect of the state began to change to reflect a capitalist mood in the country and to bring about further development of industry by the private sector. So very subtly the state morphed from a socialist state (that even gave May 1st off as a holiday with pay) to a capitalistic state that no longer recognized the May 1st International Workers' Holiday. These changes took place over many years and have been almost imperceptible to the causal observer.
When the state was formed, the concept was to provide a homeland for the Jews where they could live their lives as they chose without interference from the gentiles (as they had suffered in Europe) and free from religious coercion. They envisioned a state that had a Jewish nature meaning that stores and businesses would be closed on the Shabbat instead of Sunday as was the case in Europe and America, the language would be Hebrew, the native Jewish language, and not Yiddish, Polish, German or English, that Jewish holidays would be the official holidays of the state and not the Christian or Islamic holidays. They also envisioned a state in which the individual would be free from being forced to observe the strict interpretation of the Jewish law, rather each person could choose his own path in Jewish life.
Their vision was a Jewish state for the Jews, but limited from the depth of religious strictness.
However let us not be fooled by simplicity. There are many forces active in the state. There are the forces that desire to reduce religious observance to nil and there are forces that wish to increase the religiosity of the state. As an example, the newspaper Ha'aretz is an extremely left leaning liberal newspaper that seeks to give equality to Arabs and deny the validity of the Jewish religion as the religion of the country. Early in the state it was widely read and accepted. The modern political parties, Meretz and Sheinui, reflect this philosophy and are virulently anti-religious and try to convince the public to pass laws to curtail the influence of the religious on the character of the state.
On the other hand, there are newspapers like Yeted Ne'eman, an ultra-Orthodox paper, which is highly critical of the government and especially its secular components. It uses its influence to try to increase the religious character of the state. These are just two of many forces trying to make changes in the character of the state.
Much of today's headlines dealing with the religious/secular confrontations are written to convince a public of the righteousness of one side or the other. It would seem that this battle will go on forever, but that is not the case.
Sixty odd years have passed since the foundation of the state. The population balance each year changes. At the beginning of the state, the religious public was but a small fraction of the total. Agudat Israel, the then ultra-Orthodox political party representing the Orthodox public had three seats in the Knesset. In today's Knesset, adding together Shas (the S'fardic religious party) and United Torah Judaism (the continuation of the Agudat Israel party) totals 16 seats for the ultra-Orthodox. This clearly shows a upsurge in the religious public. Remember too, that there are less extreme forms of religious observance such as the Mizrachi National Religious bloc.
There is a demographic time bomb that is slowly ticking but will only increase the religious character of the state. The secular youth are not the idealistic youth that existed at the start of the state. At the time of the beginning of the state, the secular youth were idealistic and willing to sacrifice for the good of the state but today's youth are different; they are a youth that have been brought up on television and the pleasure seeking ideas of the West. After completing their mandatory stint in the army, many choose to go out of Israel to see the world and of these, many eventually settle outside of Israel. Those who remain in Israel do not marry at a young age and when they finally do marry, they practice birth control and have few children.
Compare this to the religious youth who are much more idealistic. They marry young, have many children who they raise to live in Israel and procreate at a much faster rate than the seculars. Add this to the fact that many of the immigrants who come and stay are religious youth who come to study for a year and end up marrying and living in Israel.
It is generally agreed by those who model the demographics of Israel that soon (some say 20 years and other 50 years) the religious (religious meaning all of the various blends of observant Jews and not just the ultra-Orthodox) will be the majority. There appears very little to stop this natural movement.
The problem therefore will be not what will be the face of Israel; it will increase its religious nature. The problem facing Israel will be: can the religious provide Israel with a leader for the entire population. and not just a rabbi?
from the April 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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