The land of the Philistines

To understand the election results in Israel, one has to look at the development of a new, religious form of Zionism, argues Irad Malkin
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The Independent Online
I sometimes ponder the fate of the religious brother of my secular, Zionist grandmother. In 1936 she migrated to Palestine; however, he was forbidden from doing so by his rabbi. The Jewish state, claimed the rabbi, must not be rebuilt before the coming of the Messiah. The advice was catastrophic (the Germans killed my great uncle in Poland), but nonetheless symptomatic of the Jewish-Zionist paradox: on the one hand there was a territorial, spiritual Judaism, and on the other secular Zionism.

The origins of the Zionist movement consisted in a rebellion against the kind of religious Judaism that made a virtue of a diaspora existence. Indeed, except for one religious movement, whose descendant is Israel's National Religious Party, all other Jewish religious sectors in Israel remain, until today, ostensibly non-Zionist. Their religious parties, which have made significant gains in this week's elections, are experienced veterans of the political election game in Israel. In the early Fifties their interests were mainly sectorial. But in time they changed their focus, and today their agenda has come full circle in its desire to reverse Zionism's definition of what Judaism is all about. Their success could change the face of Israel, its relations with the Arabs, and the value Israeli society attaches to the territorial aspects of "the Jewish State".

The view of Israel from abroad is far too narrow and mistakenly concentrates on external aspects of the Israeli-Arab relationships. Israel's picture in the media is "event-oriented". This underplays deeper changes of attitude and outlook; and it is precisely such changes that contextualise and even create the events. To understand Israeli society one would do well to observe its dilemmas and changing views of itself as a Jewish state. Israel has existed as a state for almost 50 years and during this time, and especially during the three decades following the Six Day War (1967), a polarised cultural struggle has enveloped its society.

The struggle oscillates between notions of a secular, "ethnic", and historically conditioned Jewish identity (the view of secular Zionism), and the religious orientation of Judaism. While the numbers may not seem worrying - the joint religious parties now have 25 (rather than 18 seats) in a parliament of 120, Wednesday's elections nonetheless indicate a dramatic shift towards the religious orientation. This is particularly worrying because, from the a-territorial Judaism of my great-uncle's rabbi, religious Judaism is increasingly identified with the notion of the sacred Land of Israel. The once moderate National Religious Party moved to the ultra-right territorialists almost a generation ago; the same is now happening with the other religious sectors of Israeli political life. I found it no surprise that, for the first time in its history, almost the entire religious block supported the candidate of the right.

Historically, Zionist movements on the left and on the right claim a share in the creation of the state of Israel, in the renaissance of the Hebrew language, and in winning Israel's wars. However, the enormous energy invested in state-building left little time for secular Jews (or "free Jews", as Orthodox Jews disparagingly call them) to invest in their non-religious identity. Jewish values have been abandoned to the cultural investment of religious movements whose members cannot comprehend any definition of Judaism other than a religious one. Having invested relatively little in state- and nation-building, religious movements now find themselves in a position to metamorphose the character of the Jewish state.

What character? One can be an Englishman and maintain almost any religious belief without losing that which makes him "English". But can the same be said of a Jew? The long history of the overlap between the ethnic and the religious terminology has created a basic contradiction that no Israeli can fully solve. Perhaps inexplicably, it is inconceivable even for a "free Jew" like myself that I might convert to another religion and remain a Jew. The religious parties have been very successful in shifting the focus to their point of view by exploiting the lack of clear-cut answer to the question: "What is a Jew?" (Israel has no constitution primarily for this reason). It is perhaps no wonder that the dogmatic slogan "Netanyahu is good for the Jews", carefully pronounced just a day before the elections, carried the day with the religious bloc and the majority of the Jewish population (55 per cent, excluding the votes of Israeli Arabs).

I could never sympathise with Orthodox Judaism, but I could respect the basic tenet shared by many Orthodox parties: the secular state is just a tool, and Jewish existence within it is best regarded as comparable to communal Jewish existence, say, in England or the US. Israel, however, is not England and the supposedly secluded religious sectors too are undergoing an Israeli acculturration. Both ideology and the reality of life in Israel are rapidly sandpapering away the spiritual tenets of the non-Zionist Orthodox parties. The Judaism of these parties has become intimately linked with land. These elections have proven that "place" and territory have become irretrievably glued to spiritual Judaism; paradoxically the rabbis, while probably happy with their victory, should now be worried lest the cruder, nationalistic aspects of Zionism will take over their own flock.

Israel's future and its ability to extricate itself from its domination over, and settlement among, Palestinians may depend on the "Jewish content" of the territorial space it occupies in Israel. Religious and rightist Judaism are irredentist by definition. For example, the (now Arab) city of Hebron, where Abraham is supposed to have purchased a burial plot, should, accordingly, be Jewish. By contrast, the mainstream of Zionism until the 1967 war looked for a solution for the Jewish people "in Palestine" (a point officially made already in the Balfour declaration), not over all of it. Modern Zionism has led Jews to Israel mainly through its ports and has settled the absolute majority of Jews along Israel's Mediterranean coasts. Whereas in antiquity Jews believed they had migrated to Israel from the desert, led by Moses and settled by Joshua in the hinterland, today's demographic reality constitutes a complete reversal: in their heads Jews were returning to the "land of their fathers", but the realisation of the Return was at best approximate, and Jews mostly settled in the coastal regions of ancient Phoenicia and the cities of the Philistines (hence the name "Palestine").

How is this Mediterranean paradox connected with religion, Judaism, the elections and the future? In acknowledging the Mediterranean reality of Israel, the governments of Rabin and Shimon Peres have also given up on irredentism. Let us remember that from the Israeli point of view, the most significant ideological and formal implication of the Oslo agreements with the Palestinians was that Israel has officially given up, for the first time ever, its claim over the West Bank (Judaea and Samaria) as the primordial land of the ancestors of the Jewish people. We have come just short of implementing this recognition, between 'Oslo II' (already signed and partially implemented) and 'Oslo III', yet to be negotiated. But can this still happen?

A victory of the right, coloured by its close alliance with the religious parties, must signify that the principle of irredentism is back in full force. It builds on two major trends. On the one hand, an increasing number of secular Israelis are being told (and, it seems, convinced) that Jewish identity equals religious identity. On the other hand, more and more religious Jews have come to see their Judaism as consisting of an attachment to the Sacred Land.

Shimon Peres argued against irredentism and for peace. His efforts had brought the Israeli-Jewish electorate almost to the top of the hill, from which it may be rolling backwards. When I write these lines, on the morning after the elections, the heart is as heavy as the stone of Sisyphus.

The writer is professor of Ancient History at Tel Aviv University.