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Raw Deal

To understand widespread Israeli alienation from the beauty of Jewish tradition, look to Ben-Gurion’s political bargain with the Orthodox

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Israeli soldiers and ultra-Orthodox Jews in the northern West Bank, 2007 (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)
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Rules of Engagement

The president of Israel remembers Ben-Gurion’s 1948 decision to exempt young Orthodox men from military service

In his book The Imaginary Voyage: With Theodor Herzl in Israel, first published (in French) in 1998, the cosmopolitan Nobel laureate Shimon Peres takes the Viennese visionary on a tour of the modern Jewish state. Along the way, Peres quotes a passage from Der Judenstaat, Herzl’s Zionist blueprint of 1896:

Faith unites us, knowledge gives us freedom. We shall therefore prevent any theocratic tendencies from coming to the fore on the part of our priesthood. We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples in the same way as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks.

Suffice it to say, it didn’t quite work out that way, not even from the start. In his new Nextbook Press book, Ben-Gurion: A Political Life, co-written with the veteran Israeli journalist David Landau, Peres describes the deal that Ben-Gurion made with ultra-Orthodox rabbi-politicians at the time of Israel’s founding: kashrut in all public institutions, Shabbat as the day of rest, rabbinic control of marriage and divorce, and the exemption of full-time yeshiva students, who at the time numbered only in the hundreds, from army service. This would all seem a violation of Herzl’s vision, but Peres defends Ben-Gurion’s consensus-building move as wise and pragmatic, “because the number of people in Israel who defined themselves as people of faith was large.” In a dialogue between the co-authors, the president of Israel declares:

Israel is a secular state. The Orthodox have bargaining power, so everything has to be done by compromise. But Israel is not under religious control: It’s not a halachic country, it’s not a theocracy. Ben-Gurion opposed religious coercion and opposed anti-religious coercion.

True, Israel is not a theocracy the way, say, Iran is one. But stop any bareheaded Jew on a Tel Aviv beach and ask them if there’s religious coercion in their country, and the knee-jerk response will be yes. For many Israelis, “religious coercion” doesn’t mean forced synagogue attendance, but the evasion of military duty by tens of thousands of young ultra-Orthodox men; the harassment of Reform rabbis and citizens who drive on Shabbat; the overflowing of public money to yeshivas and to ultra-Orthodox families that don’t pay taxes; the premature ending of Daylight Savings Time before the High Holidays to facilitate penitential ritual; and the hurling of dirty diapers at women wearing prayer shawls at the Western Wall, a spiritual magnet for all Jews that has been turned, with the complicity of governmental authorities, into an ultra-Orthodox synagogue. As for “theocratic tendencies,” we have the hegemony of the ultra-Orthodox-dominated, state-funded Chief Rabbinate over marriage, divorce, and conversion, protected by the ultra-Orthodox parliamentarians in the Knesset.

How did all this come about? The reasons are over-determined, as the Freudians say. Landau presses Peres, who as a young man was Ben-Gurion’s emissary to the ultra-Orthodox on the conscription issue, on whether they had perhaps miscalculated the staying power of Orthodoxy in Israel. “He wasn’t thinking about what was going to happen later,” says Peres of his mentor. “Anyway, to be completely frank, in negotiating with the venerable rabbis, I felt like I was sitting with my grandfather.” In The Imaginary Voyage, Peres puts it even more frankly: “Whenever I had to make a decision touching upon the relationship between religion and state,” he tells Herzl, “I asked myself whether grandfather would agree with what I’d done.”

As a child in White Russia, Peres studied Torah at the knee of his pious grandfather, who years later, we learn in this new book, was murdered by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen—burned alive in his synagogue. After the Holocaust, out of guilt and nostalgia, along with a sense of moral obligation, Ben-Gurion and his secular comrades understandably felt a need to indulge the surviving practitioners of the separatist Judaism that kept Diaspora Jews afloat for centuries. Besides, they probably figured that ultra-Orthodoxy, in a sovereign, modern state, would soon wither away. How wrong they were.


To this day, there are no civil marriages in Israel. A Conservative rabbi, steeped in Maimonides, cannot perform a legally binding wedding in the Jewish state. Yet each year, thousands of Israelis hop over to Cyprus for civil marriages recognized as valid by Israel’s Interior Ministry. Some time back, as a publicity stunt, a couple married by a Reform rabbi in Israel had their civil ceremony in Las Vegas, where they were wed by an Elvis impersonator.

Every so often, there’s a movement by Secularists in the Knesset to remedy this absurd situation, but it always fails. Coalitions are fragile, and ultra-Orthodox parties, supported by legions of faithful voters, are able to thwart such maneuvers. “Israel is the only democracy in the world where Jews don’t have freedom of religion,” groused Nitzan Horowitz, a Knesset member from the Meretz party, after a civil-marriage bill he sponsored was shot down in July.

Israeli disregard for Jewish religious pluralism creates an unpleasant wedge between this country and American Jewry. But the sad truth is that most Israelis don’t much care. As a secular sabra businessman once explained to me: “For me, a Rabbanut wedding is like getting a driver’s license. In both cases, you play by the rules.” It has long been remarked that American Jews are Protestant Jews, and Israeli Jews are Catholic Jews. As in Italy, you’re a bad Catholic or a good Catholic, but still a Catholic. In other words—and despite the laudable blossoming, in some communities, of Israeli renewal-style Judaism—the shul the average Israeli doesn’t go to is still Orthodox.

In reality, of course, Israeli society is not truly polarized between dati and hiloni, “religious” and “secular.” You can be religious without being Orthodox, though in Israel this mainly means mesorati, or traditional. This large category is characteristic of Jews from Arab lands, who observe many rituals and go regularly to synagogue, but are not strict Sabbath observers. This does not, however, make them pluralists. I’ve lectured many times to IDF officers—a mixed audience of religious-nationalist, mesorati, and secular Jews—about liberal Judaism in Israel. When I am challenged to explain where one “gets the right” to pick and choose what religious laws to observe, I say that the Reformim behave much like mesorati Jews, to which the rejoinder will often be: You’re wrong, because the Moroccan Jew who drives to Teddy Stadium to watch soccer on Shabbat knows he is sinning. You don’t.


Behold a central irony of Israeli Judaism: Ultra-Orthodox Israelis may be widely resented as draft-dodgers who sponge their living from hard-working, tax-paying citizens. But they are, at the same time, widely perceived as custodians of the flame.

For its part, the Rabbinate unabashedly prefers the Tel Aviv metrosexual who goes windsurfing on Yom Kippur and eats pork in a pita on Pesach to a devoted Reform Jew who teaches her daughter to read from the Torah. The former, in rabbinic parlance, is a tinok shenishba, equivalent to a child abducted by heathens or Cossacks who cannot be blamed for his ignorance, and is so far gone as to be a prime candidate for hazara beteshuva, the full embrace of Orthodoxy. The Reform Jew, by contrast, is a defiant apostate, a scofflaw who dares suggest an alternative to old-time religion. When first I moved to Israel, I found in my mailbox on the eve of Rosh Hashanah a flyer sternly warning Jews not to be tempted to hear the blowing of the shofar at a Reform congregation, for these folks are a neta zar, a “foreign sapling in our holy land.”

Such a blinkered worldview encourages a cynical symbiosis, providing the secular Israeli with ample reason to remain distant from Judaism. Thank you, he or she says to the Rabbinate, for affirming your authority and authenticity. You have reminded me that Judaism is rigid, coercive, and sexist, which is why I want no part of it. Perhaps the sorriest legacy of Ben-Gurion’s political deal is widespread Israeli alienation from the beauty and wonder of Jewish tradition.

A story is told—in several versions, though not by Peres and Landau—of a meeting in 1952 between Ben-Gurion and Rabbi Avraham Karelitz, a Russian-born ultra-Orthodox leader known as the Chazon Ish. The rabbi seeks to persuade the prime minister of the need to defer to Torah scholars by citing a passage from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin: “If two camels met each other while on the ascent to Beth-Horon … How then should they act? If one is laden and the other unladen, the latter should give way to the former.”

Was there a part of Ben-Gurion, champion of the Bible and Hebrew culture, that believed that his own camel lacked Jewish gravitas? He famously said, as quoted again by Peres, “that in Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.” In exempting the yeshiva students from the draft, did he also believe that their lives of study and prayer would bring about the protection of the Almighty? Or by giving a green light to “theocratic tendencies,” did he have another agenda entirely?

The Israeli religious philosopher and scientist Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a sternly Orthodox Jew, wrote in 1977 that Ben-Gurion had told him in the 1950s: “I will never agree to the separation of religion from the State. I want the State to hold religion in the palm of its hand.” For Leibowitz, this meant that “the status of Jewish religion in the state of Israel is that of a kept mistress of the secular government,” which he deemed “contemptible.” But in the ongoing Israeli soap opera, it often seems like the mistress is running the show.

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for your next lecture please remember that orthodox Jews also pick and choose. just reverse the question: who sanctions their choices?

Instead of constantly whining, perhaps Reform and
Conservative movements in Israel could engage in some much needed introspection and ask why they still fail to gain much if any traction among native Israelis or Russian immigrants. The rabbanut is fairly akin to the DMV and ignored by even the religious, who have their own rabbis, but that doesn’t fully explain why liberal Judaism is a fringe movement in Israel after all these years.

DHMCarver says:

Yaron, perhaps you should define your terms. What do you mean by “liberal Judaism”? Secular and non-Orthodox Jews make up the majority of Israeli Jews. So when you define “liberal Judaism” as a “fringe movement”, to whom do you refer?

babawawa says:

There are a number of ridiculous statements in this article, beginning foremost with what Hertzl wanted – which was ultimately for all Jews to convert to Christianity. Is the author upset about that not happening? Or that orthodox Jews don’t pay taxes. Which must mean they don’t eat or leave their houses ever, because there’s a tax on everything. It’s like people complaining about illegals here in America not paying taxes. They do, and often don’t take much in return. So that argument is disingenuous. That Judaism is sexist – well, yes it is. It started, I think, when G-d told Avraham to listen to Sarah, and later told Moshe to give the Torah to women first, and then the men. Women determine who is a Jew, not men. A women is not obligated to pray, because her time is considered more importantly spent on child rearing. (Hence the barrier erected in orthodox shuls is not to keep women out but to keep men in). Men face more restrictions because their nature is considered animalistic – they are commanded to pray 3x daily, wear garments and a head dress that reminds them to be humble. I could go on, but you get the picture.
What amazes me is that people who express the same feelings as this author support indigenous cultures and their customs everywhere else. Could a bit of self-hatred be the answer?

Reuvain says:

Funny thing. The Reform and Conservative spent millions in Israel, attempting to bring their brand to the country. Other than some Anglos they have made very small inroads, around 1/10 of 1% identify with them. It’s not much different in other countries outside the US, in Europe, Australia, South Africa, where they are very marginal. According to the Israeli census bureau 31% percent are Dati-Religious, another 30 % traditional, and the rest secular. On the flip side Orthodoxy is growing in the US where Conservative is shrinking-according to the NJPS they have lost one third of their members.

Liberals love to blame the ominous “Ultra Orthodox” for their moderate inroads, maybe they should look inward. Simply put, Jews who have had a more intimate interaction with Orthodoxy, and may choose to not be fully observant are deeply troubled by the radical changes to Jewish belief by the Liberal movements.
In the US they are voting with their feet, slowly moving towards Orthodox attachment-maybe not full observance-but at the least subtle shift of loyalty. In Israel, as in other countries the Liberals are not succeeding since their product is not selling.

Seeing these failures, it’s easy to blame every else, courage would mandate a look inward. Not at all Jews support the radical changes, support of homosexual marriage, the leading Conservative rabbi in LA saying to the LA Times “The Exodus did not happen”, uprooting the first line of the Ten Commandments. As Jews learn more about their Heritage they see clearly that the so called modern innovations are in truth a departure from classical Jewish ideals and beliefs. They are simply not willing to get on that train.

When a product does not sell its always easy to blame the competition, and it helps in fundraising, when it truth the public just not be buying.

A sad situation when seen from America. Ben-Gurion, and the modern state in general (whether Israel or any other) really fail to comprehend the fluidity and balances between religion, culture, and nationality. I’ve had a hard time reconciling with my zionism lately, but having read some early thinkers’ works (mostly Russians from the turn of the century like Dubnow) on the subject, it’s clear how rich a field of thought zionism used to be. It’s funny (read: sad), because both contemporary zionism AND anti-zionism completely ignore this theoretical history. I also speak Yiddish, and Ben-Gurion’s fascistic refusal to allow any language other than Hebrew, even after the Shoah, to enter Israel is irreconcilable.

DHM it’s pretty clear to anyone familiar with Israeli society that secular Jew does not necessarily mean an adherent of liberal Judaism. The reform and conservative movements in Israel, ie ‘liberal Judaism’ are tiny and continue to attract miniscule numbers despite the millions of dollars spent on them.

Instead of whining about the orthodox or the rabbanut, why not ask more pertinient questions. For example is there a need for both reform and conservative movements in Israel? Why not merge into one umbrella as Rabbi David Frohman has suggested? Why not attempt to appeal to the non Ashkenazi majority?

Israelis are free to organize themselves religiously and politically as they see fit. But then they should not be surprised if more and more liberal American Jews with money become at best indifferent to Israel and to Judaism. Young Jewish entrepreneurs in the US are more likely to give to causes such as minority education than to Jewish/Israeli charities. As older wealthy Jews who were young adults during the Holocaust years die off, individual financial support for Israel will diminish. The rapidly growing ultra Orthodox communities in the diaspora don’t have much money, aren’t interested in secular education and are unlikely to produce many Nobel prize winners or to start new companies like Facebook.

Israel’s proportional representation system for picking Knesset members is much
closer to the failed system in Weimar Germany than to either the US or British systems. In 1932, the German Reichsatg was not even able to put together a coalition government in spite of two national elections that year. It came to an end in January 1933, after lasting less than 14 years. In spite of any weaknesses the US and British systems have, they have both lasted over 200 years.

Hershl says:

Visit the site if you really want to know what the orthodox scum are up to.

As an ex-frumik ( orthodox cretin) I can only wish for their quick demise.

They worship religion, not god.

They are the greatest enemies of the Jewish people, bar none.

olterigo says:

To Yaron and Reuven,

You want to know why Progressive Judaism has not made inroads among Russians and Israelis? Because Russians and Israelis are quite comfortable being 1. secular or 2. agnostics or 3. atheists or 4. to define their lives as Jews without the need for rituals.

My boyfriend – an Israeli – and I (a Russian) went to a Reform synagogue for the High Holidays. He is an atheist and I am somewhere between an agnostic and an atheist. We went to the synagogue, because he feels a lack of Jewish identity in the US. So, I ask him: “What did you think of the services?” His response: “There was too much religion.”

When a person pits his peace of mind against the disharmony of injustices perpetuated by the corrupt, he attunes his soul to the miraculous escape into liberty, the harmonious universitality maintained as nature. Our choice is to be our life or death, as defined grandiose delusion or reality perception because creative imagination is the guts of all myth, emotion, and communication. The dependence on religion to communicate messages stems from the fact that people refuse to think about forces beyond the realm of human comprehension, so literature enables one’s soul to retain its footing within a body. There are specific ways to cultivate the freedom of soul expression.
The fact of difference in the myth of religion about American Jewish and Israeli Jewish is the difference between the survival of people as Jewish.

Contrary to what is said here, the fact is Israeli Jews are not secular.
Only 40% of them identify as seculars and if you check what they really do, it is closer to 20% – check the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics.
Tel Aviv does not represent anything but itself. And nobosy cares about Reform Judaism in Israel but a tiny minority.

Among the thousand who get married in Cyprus and other places – the majority are non-Jewish immigrants. And there are hundreds of Arab Muslims and Christians also. It may be around 5% or less of Jewish weddings.

There is no doubt that a part of the population is alienated from Judaism. A shrinking part in fact.

Being angry at the haredim does not make you anti-Judaism – most Zionist Religious are angry at them and they are very “Orthodox” by American standards.

Very interesting article. Thank you. If this article has been published in Hebrew as well, could I please have a link to it? I would like to discuss this with my Israeli friends, and can’t trust Google Translate to handle such a nuanced text.

Lots of stereotyping here. First, the ultra-Orthodox are not some cohesive group but a collection of sub-groups with different traditions and interpretations. Second,MOST of the country is ‘religious’ to a greater or lesser extent, and the masorti are probably the majority. The masorti refusal to embrace ultra-Orthodox or Reform extremes (they are flip sides of the same coin—one is overly-halachic Judaism, the other is the self-contradiction of non-halachic Judaism)is probably the norm here. It’s also more forgiving and less competitive: one can be as religious or as non-observant as one wishes in the masorti stream, but Jewish texts and education is still highly valued; there are those who would never drive on Shabbat, those who drive only to their mother, and those who drive because it’s their only day off. But who drives knows its wrong and doesn’t come up with the twisted excuses of Reform and Conservative sects. Who needs them?

@ sarah

You mean masorati (traditional), not “masorti” that is the name of the Conservative Movement in Israel.

Arik Elman says:

Israel is still in the formative stage of the nation-building, and the 2000-years old religious tradition has much more weight then the thin reed of the secular Israeli culture whose basic values are hotly debated and contested. Compare with Greece, where the Orthodox Christian faith played a similar role in keeping the national flame alive under Turkish Muslim occupation. It took Greece till 70-s to recognize secular marriages, and still the Church is very much enmeshed within the fabric of the state. We are not unique.

Memeplexes Kill says:

Good Lord. Religion is just a combination of memes, or memeplex, with the unfortunate habit of competing with other memeplexes. Wars, conflicts, obsessions about controlling women and their fertility, as well as other tribal shenanigans, result.

TED 2008: Humans Are Just Machines for Propagating Memes, Susan Blackmore Says

Acting as if religion is real and should be respected (tolerance!) is a prescription for disaster, a cynical vote guaranteeing a terrible, conflict-laden, future.

Good riddance.

This article has some good points, but tries to judge Israel by American cultural norms.

Israel is a state in the Middle East. It must be religious to some (not overly coercive) degree to fit into the neighborhood, and to show respect to it’s non-Jewish citizens (mainly Muslim, Druze and Christin) by having a public space to God. Unlike the increasingly Godless West.

Reform is an American version of Judaism. Why would this be relevant to a Middle Eastern country!?

I live in the diaspora, and have been Jewish for most, if not all, of my life. Yet, I never go to shule, don’t bench teffilin, don’t light Hanukah candles. And, this December 24th, like several past ones, there will be a Christmas tree shining in my living-room, because my (lapsed-Catholic) partner wants it. I live in a Jewish neighborhood, and am, literally, surrounded by “modern” Orthodox families… who I dare to ever suggest than I am not “a real Jew”, because I know that, when the Nazis come again, we’ll all be herded onto the same train – though, admittedly, they’ll be assigned to the coach-of-honor, The First Boxcar. When I read about your petty Wars of Religion in Israel, I can only shake my head in disbelief, and add one more item to the long list of reasons why I have absolutely no interest in ever visiting your country, which is, as we all know, A Light Onto the Nations.

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Raw Deal

To understand widespread Israeli alienation from the beauty of Jewish tradition, look to Ben-Gurion’s political bargain with the Orthodox

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