Friday, 28 January. 2022
Your Key to Palestine
The Palestinian Initiatives for The Promotoion of Global Dialogue and Democracy

This picture is one of many murals found painted on a wall near the Beit Romano settlement in the Jewish H2 area of Hebron. The fresco is an integral part of a larger group that colorfully illustrates the history and prospective future of the Jewish people from the perspective of the 600-strong settler inhabitants in the ancient city, situated in the West Bank, and is the supposed resting place of Abraham – the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

This particular decoration depicts a point in time when the third temple has been built and the people are overjoyed with peace and prosperity which has subsequently led to the manifestation of the Messiah. However, the most intriguing aspect of this prophetic visual display of art is the large character at the top, proudly waving what seems to be an Israeli flag but which is in fact the orange flag representing the settler element of Jewish society, a demographic of religious Zionists intent on reclaiming their biblical lands, increasingly frustrated with the secular Israeli government and any subtle insinuation that the West Bank settlements [Judea and Samaria] may be evacuated for the sake of a lasting peace with Palestinians. Instead, the crown in the middle of the Star of David on the flag signifies the Kingdom of Judea and its restoration.

The definition of the secularist, ultra orthodox and religious Zionist sects and their place within the State of Israel’s framework has consistently been a topic of discussion as well as confusion since David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the existence of the state in 1948. Jews in Israel differ on the degree of severity inherent in their coexistence with many asserting that it is a conflict potentially more damaging than the Palestinian question and an internal confrontation between such contrasting beliefs that if addressed or exposed, could have dire ramifications for Jewish survival in the land of Israel. Others choose to view the situation in a blasé manner, discarding the theory that it is of supreme importance and an apocalyptical issue which threatens the future of Israel. In their opinion, it is a rather inconsequential obstacle, overemphasized and one that would be suppressed taking into consideration that if it were to transpire, Judaism would triumph as the unifying tool and prevent a substantial battle from ensuing.

Initially, the Zionist dream advocated by Theodor Herzl in the latter stages of the nineteenth century, was founded upon an ideology inspired by Marxist socialism where Jews would be able to cultivate land, live in a community exclusively for themselves and escape from persecution. This paradigm did not demand strict adherence to Judaism but Judaism was more a component or common denominator shared by its participants.

When the dream turned into a reality and Israel declared independence in 1948, the task of incorporating the religious element of Judaism [already established in the Holy Land] with the new Zionist-based and secularist ideology was to become a vital factor in constructing a quintessential Israeli identity.

This integration at the embryonic stages of the State of Israel attracted a mixed reaction from the ultra orthodox [haredim] element of Jewish society. Naturally, it became a question of belief and interpretation. Many thought that their arrival was in complete violation and contradiction of God’s word, attempting to reinvent themselves in their land prematurely without God’s consent quoting Psalmist 127:1 which stipulated clearly that “if the lord will not build the house, they labor in vain that build it”. This group of religious devotees scorned migration, secularism and chose a simple life of pious servitude purely to the holy sites housed in historic Palestine.

Alternatively, another branch of the haredim led by Rabbi Abraham Kook grew to view the secularist arrival as a religious right of passage where God was perceived as acting through secular Jews as an interim step to salvation and to an enlightened period which would return the secular Zionists to customary Jewish tradition. Therefore, this group embraced Zionism and sent their children to public schools and to partake in military conscription while ultra orthodox Jews continued to attend the yeshivas and dedicate themselves to religious scripture.

Then when Israel defeated the Arabs in 1967 and subsequently occupied the West Bank, this offered the followers of the latter school evidence that their hypothesis and predications had in fact been accurate – the Zionist migration was an act of divine intervention which would result in enlightenment, salvation but most importantly legitimized the repossession of Judea and Samaria. This group eventuality gathered under the banner of the political Gush Emunim movement.

Whereas David Ben-Gurion and his Labor [Alignment] successors had appeased the haredim with extraordinary positions of influence, it was not long before the Labor policy of achieving maximum land for the Jews with minimal Arab presence could not include Judea and Samaria with the Palestinians still inhabiting the area. With the formation of the Likud party in 1973, the religious Zionists had found their representatives in government. Although not entirely religious, Likud were simply adamant on securing as much land as possible.

With Labor resuming power in the mid eighties and early nineties, another split amongst the religious Zionists occurred. A section of them [Meimad] chose to align with Labor rather than associate with the increasingly assertive Gush Emunim. This break away, combined with Labor’s rejuvenated status, led the Gush Emunim to gradually become more isolated from the political spot light and created a gulf which separated the religious Zionists – the Meimad on one side and the Gush Emunim on the other.

While many rabbis spoke for the cause of coexistence with secularism, the more Gush Emunim became intransigent and discontent with the direction of the secular government, the more they became susceptible to extremist ideology, progressively employing Rabbi Meir Kahane’s philosophy which called for Arabs to be extinguished for the Jewish agenda to succeed while attacking democracy for its audacity to ultimately make decisions that should be reserved for God.

From a poll conducted in 2008 by the Israel Democracy Institute, one may be tempted to conclude that the internal mêlée is somewhat unsubstantiated and dramatically embellished. The Democracy Index reported that 51% of the Jewish Israeli population is secular while only 19% is religious or ultra orthodox. These results are reinforced by the Central Bureau of Statistics [CBS] who record that 44% of Jewish Israelis are secular whereas only 17% are religious or ultra orthodox. There are more Arabs in Israel than religious or ultra orthodox Jews in total.

However, it is not the size of the demographic that secularists are worried about, more the influence such a small religious proportion of the population wield and the power they are able to exert to ensure their requirements are respected and their opinions protected. This fear is especially evident now with the split of Ariel Sharon from Likud, the establishment of the centralist Kadima party and the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians. The three areas of concern for secularists are accentuated by the vehement protection and influence of the religious element, their effect on the labor market and their participation in the military.

As documented by Jonathan Cook in “Blood and Religion: The unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State”, the religious community in Israel are the sole regulatory and authoritative body for their members with regard to births, deaths and marriages. Therefore, if one wishes to be registered as a Jew in the Jewish state of Israel, they must receive the blessing of the religious sect who essentially hold the keys to one's credibility in Israel. In addition, offices, banks, institutions and public transport all close for the Jewish Sabbath; restaurants, factories and public institutions must follow the hygiene practices of Jews; only Jewish holy sites are recognized protected by law; almost the entire budget of the Religious Affairs Ministry is reserved for Jewish places of worship and the Jewish yeshivas receive resources far exceeding those of state run schools. Furthermore, for such a small percentage of the population, the religious groups are supported staunchly by influential political parties such as Likud and Shas who are continuously growing in popularity.

Secondly is their negative effect on the labor market. A report in the Economist mentioned that while only 56% of the country is employed, only 40% of the ultra orthodox groups are in the labor force while representing one of the most rapidly increasing demographics. As Israel currently boasts 3% economic growth with a thriving IT and weapons industry as well as having the most companies listed on NASDAQ stock exchange after America and Canada, a rise in religious Jews may prove immensely detrimental to the Israeli economy. With this said the richest man in Israel, Lev Leviev, is a religious Zionist.

Lastly, there is the worry amongst the secularists about the escalating number of religious Zionists conscripting to the Israeli army. Normally, ultra orthodox Jews are exempt from military service [already a contentious topic amongst secular Israelis] but maybe in response to the internal conflict and their reluctance to compromise, Rabbi Dan Be’er admits that religious Zionists “instead of moving towards Israel’s middle ground, the religious camp might try to bring the middle ground towards the settlers”. 50% of the platoon commander’s course, 40% of the officers and 30% of the company commanders are currently yarmulke donning religious Zionists.

Will a confrontation materialize? One of the problems in answering this question is the lack of a constitution to set the boundaries and limits. This is understandably a highly complex document to construct taking into account the lack of clarity over the Jewish identity in Israel. With this said, statistics show that the religious side of Israel is growing at a significant rate – but enough to threaten secular interests? When a small percentage of the population enjoys the levels of influence and power that the ultra orthodox or religious Zionists do, this is also difficult to decipher. All that can be said is the violent action expressed verbally against Prime Minister Sharon and physically on Israeli soldiers, not to mention their lack of punishment following the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, is a snippet into what they are capable of.

Although not extensively publicized or prevalent in media discourse, the internal battle between secularism and religion as the dominant or superseding feature of Israeli identity is still apparent and risks the perpetual vision of the Israeli state.

While Ha’aretz writer Tom Segev views the dichotomy as one which matches the ideologues of the State of Israel and a Jewish State against those defending the Land of Israel and the Jewish God, Professor Samuel C. Heilman goes further by comprehensively implying that the situation is more serious and could exacerbate to a showdown where the outcome will be either one or the other. The Professor of Jewish Studies and Sociology at the City of New York University poses the question, “will those who consider the unity of Jewish people the primary value prevail or will these who see sovereignty over the entire biblical land of Israel as the highest value carry the day”?

By the Same Author
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