Territorial messianism afflicts secular Israelis too

by Yaniv Reich on November 27, 2009

After a couple long days of pre-Thanksgiving debate with my father and aunt, I tired of the standard Israeli distinction between religious and secular Israelis, which was made incessantly by my (secular) family members. There is, in the minds of “mainstream” Israelis, a very big difference between the religious fanatics that colonize the West Bank and terrorize its inhabitants, and the “normal” Israelis, who are largely secular, sane, and peace loving.

There is a problem with this characterization, which Israelis regularly attempt to blur. Namely, even if the ideologies of these two groups differ along a variety of dimensions, particularly religious fervor but also the desire to see settlements expand, the fact is that mainstream Israeli thought is remarkably tolerant of the settlement project, consistently failing to vote for any political party that might actually stop it (for the last 42 years). Moreover, many Zionist ideas are shared between these groups and exist un-interrogated in secular Israelis minds. Some of these Zionist ideas are deeply hostile to extending basic rights to Palestinians.

A Haaretz editorial elaborates:

Although most of the Jewish population of Israel is secular and therefore seemingly unaffected politically by God’s promise of the land to Abraham in Genesis, it appears the divine promise that “I will give unto thee and to thy seed after thee the land of thy sojournings” holds ancient power. The pull is unconscious for most but very deep, which has an effect on most Israelis.

The influence of this justification for our tie to the land on the secular population rises emotionally above all other rights to ownership of the Land of Israel. This phenomenon reveals one of the fundamental contradictions of Israeli society, which has been with the Zionist movement since its inception.
The concept of a divinely promised land is in contradiction in principle to the values of the Zionist movement, which was primarily a modern, secular nationalist movement.

On the other hand, the secular nationalism of Zionism and the state of Israel has messianic religious underpinnings, both conscious and unconscious, and the use of the Hebrew language provides a host of examples of this (such as calling immigration to Israel aliyah – ascent, and emigration yerida – descent).

Jewish philosophers Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem had already noted the hidden theological potential of the Hebrew language and its dangers. These issues greatly disturbed a few of the intellectuals of the Zionist movement.
The Zionist movement for its part spoke of our historic right and the right of self-determination. Theodor Herzl sought legitimacy from the great powers at the time and a seal of approval on the part of international law.

However, as noted above, the deepest sense of the right to the land has roots of another kind. “I will give unto thee and to thy seed after thee the land of thy sojournings” is a resounding voice of political-theological power that takes hold of many secular people.

This explains many phenomena in secular Israeli society, such as the enthusiasm with which left-wing intellectuals and Labor Party ministers embraced the Greater Land of Israel; the gap between government policy and practice on the settlements; and the lenient policy toward the ultra-Orthodox, both in exempting them from military service and granting funding for ultra-Orthodox education despite their refusal to allow core subjects to be taught.

And beyond political debate and societal considerations, powerful conscious and subconscious religious and mythical emotions are at work in secular Israeli society, which at times are also connected to feelings of guilt. These emotions and feelings of responsibility also find expression in the operation of Israeli government bureaucracy, which sometimes hinders, rejects and undermines policy it is tasked with carrying out. The result is a range of political declarations which are dead on arrival, unless the United States and European countries step up the pressure.

That is why it is possible to live on one level in an Israeli bubble, and in practice to act on another level at the opposite end of the spectrum.

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