Tuesday, June 18, 2019

A Secular Jewish State is an Oxymoron

Yisroel Beiteinu leader, Avigdor Lieberman (JOL)
Israel is not a theocracy. Much as I believe that a state that followed Jewish law would be a good thing for those of us that are observant I do not think it is possible at this point in time. 90% of the country is secular.

Although a huge proportion of Israelis (probably most) are traditional; have a strong sense of Jewish identity; and actually have a variety of Jewish practices (such as fasting on Yom Kippur and having a Seder on Pesach) - forcing them to be fully observant would be a prescription for disaster. 

As I often say, you can’t shove religion down peoples’s throats. You have to show them the beauty of observant Judaism and let them experience it for themselves. Trying to force someone to be fully observant by Orthodox standards will cause them to run the other way.

On the other hand, a Jewish state must have the basic elements of Judaism in order to be called Jewish.  Without that, there would not be anything Jewish about it.

Judaism at its core is Halachic. While it is also cultural, that is merely a by-product. For a nation to retain its enduring character, it must have enduring values that are not subject to change with the winds of time – as is the case with Jewish culture. The enduring values that have kept us a people for centuries is the Torah. By following its immutable laws over the centuries, we have persevered. That is how we perpetuated ourselves as a people.

Bearing these two disparate ideas in mind, what should Israel do? On the one hand they cannot be fully Halachic and expect everyone to toe that line. On the other hand if it is Halacha that defines Judaism, how can it NOT be Halachic?

As I have mentioned many times before, both the Chazon Ish who was considered the Gadol HaDor of his time by many Jews - and the state of Israel’s founder, David Ben Gurion who was decidedly secular recognized that conundrum and agreed to a compromise that has become known as the status quo agreement. Which meant that whatever conditions were in place in both religious and secular terms would define the Jewish state from that point forward.

Among other things that meant that Shabbos would be the official day of rest; Jewish holidays would be legal holidays; Kashrus would be observed in every government agency (including the military) and that full time Yeshiva students would be officially exempt from army service.

It is no secret that the last one is currently one of the biggest issues facing Israel right now. That agreement was intended for the select few that were full time Yeshiva students. Which if I understand correctly was about 400 students strong back then. 

Indeed that exemption paralleled a similar one in the United States where at the time students studying for the clergy were exempt (the famous 4D clergy exemption) from the draft. The idea being that a country needs spiritual leaders... that it was a calling which required full time dedication and training. I doubt that there was much if any opposition back then to such exemptions (with the possible exception of the few truly anti religious political leaders in Israel.)

Things are a bit different today. With well over 50,000 exemptions which is the vast majority of Charedi young people, it has become a real bone of contention between the religious parties and the secular ones.  

I – for one – agree that it is a grossly unjust system that exempts an entire class of people from the obligations every other class of people (with the exception of Arab Israelis) are subject to. While there is no official exemption of Charedim as a class, that is in effect how it all shakes out.

The problem is the status quo agreement. In theory it exempts all full time yeshiva students. Which in practice exempts them all. While that is slowly changing as the Israeli government tries to accommodate Charedi sensibilities in all Charedi army units, the fact is that the vast majority of young Charedim still do not serve.

Making matters worse is that army service is denigrated by much of the Charedi world with claims that they disabuse religious recruits from observance. Which has spawned some of the more extreme Charedim in places like Meah Shearim to verbally and even physically assault Charedi recruits when they spot them in their neighborhoods!

As an aside in my view a just solution to this problem would be to eliminate the draft and make an all volunteer army. But I do’t see that happening any time soon. In the alternative, the ideal would be to exempt only the most elite students among them. The rest should be subject to the same draft as everyone else. What proportion of students should get that  exemption is a good question. But clearly not all of them. Perhaps not even most of them. Especially now that the government is bending over backwards to accommodate them.

Meanwhile there are factions - or should I say individuals - in Israeli politics that have another agenda. I appreciate that as a secular Jew, Avigdor Lieberman has no interest in religion. But he is currently on a tear to eliminate religion from the state. It appears that he doesn’t care that much about his Jewish heritage. Nor does he apparently care about the Jewish state really. He only cares about himself.

It was not all that long ago where Lieberman got along nicely with the religious parties. But now he wants a state free of them. 

Lieberman is responsible for destroying what should have been a clear victory for a center-right ruling coalition government. This is how the population voted. Unfortunately it came by way of a number of parties, both large and small. From center–right to extreme right. 

Likud, the party with the most votes (and thereby the most Keneset seats) needed to cobble together a coalition with the smaller parties in order to form the majority (61 seats) needed form a ruling coalition. The Charedi parties agreed. Lieberman refused to join such a coalition unless his demands of eliminating all Charedi exemptions from the army were met.  

The Charedi parties were even willing to compromise on their own demands and allow for a quota of Charedim to be drafted. Lieberman refused. He now insists that he will not join in any coalition that includes the Charedi parties. Status quo? What status quo?! Without Lieberman, there are not enough seats to form a coalition. That means new elections. Here (from JOL) is what he wants to accomplish: 
‘We will force a government with the Likud and with Blue and White, which will be an emergency government, a national-liberal government. And we will do everything to block the ultra-Orthodox, who will not be allowed into the government,” he said. 
I have no love lost for the Charedi parties. I neither love them nor hate them. Sometimes I support them and sometimes I don’t. But this time they are not the villains. Lieberman is. If I were an Israeli voter that in the past supported Lieberman – I would drop that support like a lead balloon - and vote for Likud. Let Liberman’s party die by virtue of not meeting the minimum number of seats required by law to secure a place in the next Keneset. That would be poetic justice.