Published in The Jerusalem Post, February 21, 2020; and in Israel Hayom, 24.02.2020.
(The JPost headlined this article: “God who doesn’t exist forbid!”)
Crass Israeli politicians are stirring anti-religious passions for electoral gain.
Tel Aviv deputy mayor Reuven Ladiansky of the Green Secular Party launched an assault against Jewish life in Israel this week by promulgating a ban on “tefillin stands” within 100 meters of schools, parks, community centers, or any other institutions that children frequent. “We must protect our children, both at school and at parks, from all peddlers of ideology or propaganda,” he said.
For Ladiansky and his radical anti-religious ilk, Chabad’s iconic tefillin booths (where passersby are offered the opportunity to lay phylacteries and say a short prayer, like the cornerstone “Shma” text), are staffed by “peddlers of propaganda,” dangerous missionaries from hell. They seek to kidnap the minds and souls of Israeli children, the like the nefarious child snatchers of the darkest days in antisemitic Christian Europe. They seek to entrap kids – God-that-doesn’t-exist forbid! – into some exposure to basic Jewish culture and ritual.
Ladiansky’s campaigns against any vestige of religion in the public and private spheres go back more than a decade, when he led protests in Ramat Aviv against the activity of the neighborhood’s Chabad House. He also opposed establishment of religious institutions there, including kindergartens and mikvehs.
Of course, Ladiansky has no problem with “peddlers of ideology” inside or outside schools from hard Left or anti-Zionist groups like ‘Breaking the Silence’; no problem with peddlers outside schools handing-out ads to kids for Tel Aviv nightclub or gay cultural events; no problem with massive billboards outside schools or anywhere else advertising bikinis or weed parties.
According to Ladiansky, it’s mainly Judaism that kids need to be protected from. In the only Jewish state in the world, Ladiansky can’t tolerate Orthodox Jewish infiltration and manipulation – as he terms it – in his secular city-state. There are 3,500 Chabad Houses worldwide, but if it was up to Ladiansky, the “first Jewish city,” Tel Aviv, would also be the first city in the world to outlaw a Chabad House.
Fortunately, Ladiansky represents only a tiny fringe of the electorate. But for this fringe, it is hunting season on Jewish tradition, on the traditional Jewish family, Jewish scholarship, displays of religious belief, public Shabbat observance, even religious cultural events.
It’s enough to support a bit more classical Jewish and Zionist education in the general-secular school system to be declared a dangerous religious stormtrooper. It’s enough to support a consumer campaign to preserve Shabbat as a national day of respite, not as the national day of non-stop shopping, to be called a Neanderthal.
The anti-religious radical left has a nasty name for any form of public religious expression: hadata, or religionization.
The granddaddy of the anti-religious hadata rampage is Yisrael Beytenu czar Avigdor Liberman. (He learned a trick or two from Tommy and Yair Lapid). In the current election campaign, Liberman is angling for the votes of, say, five percent of the electorate – Israeli secularists who fervently fear the “religionization” of Israeli society or detest religion more than they care about the “occupation” of the Palestinians.
Liberman’s religion-baiting campaign goes way beyond the limits of acceptable debate about the role of religion in politics or the appropriateness of legislation that impinges on religious freedom (or guarantees freedom from religion). His fiery agitation goes way beyond legitimate (and accurate) criticism of the haredi-ized rabbinical bureaucracy. His television advertisements are near antisemitic. If such campaigning were to be used abroad, every liberal Jewish defense agency would be screaming bloody murder.
RESPONSIBLE ISRAELI leaders, both religious and secular, right and left, must not allow the Liberman-Ladiansky kulturkampf to advance. The dangers here are clear: that the baby (core Jewish knowledge and identity in Israel) gets thrown out with the bathwater (opposition to religious coercion).
It needs to be said loud and clear: In the State of Israel, teaching about Jewish history, holidays, prayers, practise and beliefs is not “brainwashing.” Exposing kids to Jewish rituals is not “indoctrination.” Just the opposite is true: Our Jewish heritage is a gift. Jewish knowledge and observance are privileges to be embraced, not nuisances to be negated. In this regard, we should be in favour of hadata.
It cannot be that our youngsters learn everything about physics and math, absorb every ounce of modern culture from Madonna to Teapacks, and know the call-signs of every one of Israel’s 50 television stations by heart; while not knowing the 12 months of the Hebrew calendar, nor knowing in the foggiest way what religious-ideological principles are printed on the parshiot (the texts) in tefillin.
It is unacceptable that many non-Orthodox adult Israelis have no idea what Purim is beyond the masquerade party; why outdoor huts on Succot are meaningful beyond the ancient historical reference to Biblical Sinai; and why Tu Beshvat was on February 10. (It has something to with the fifteenth of Shvat; that is a Jewish calendar thing).
And in the public sphere, we mustn’t talk about Shabbat observance or Jewish marriage law as “problems” that impinge upon expressions of a “natural, free and happy life.” It is wrong to talk about traditional Jewish principles and halachic limitations as a drag – a “problem” – that runs up against, for example, the great global Eurovision song contest (rehearsed and performed on Shabbat in Tel Aviv), or against free love without limitations between Jews and non-Jews (including several recent Israeli celebrity intermarriages).
Finding the right balance between conservative tradition and liberal modernity in Israel is a constant and blessed challenge, not a “problem.” The challenges must not become platforms for societal warfare or crass electioneering. They ought to be delicately handled by mature leaders, not by polarizing politicians like Liberman and Ladiansky.