Keep the Faith
The battered Israeli left can advance its agenda only if it learns to stop fearing religion and embrace the notion of the Chosen People
The Jewish people, it turns out, are on very good terms with God. Eighty percent of Jewish Israelis say they are believers, and 70 percent agree with the proposition that Jews are the Chosen People, according to a survey released in Israel last week.
Conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute’s Guttman Center for Surveys and the Avi Chai Foundation, the survey, which analyzed the responses of 2,800 Israelis, confirmed the truths I held to be self-evident when I grew up in Israel not too long ago. (Avi Chai is affiliated with the Keren Keshet Foundation, which created Nextbook Inc., Tablet Magazine’s publisher.) Back then—after the arrival of McDonald’s but before the second Intifada—it felt like a given that if you were Jewish you most likely had some sort of relationship with God, regardless of your level of observance. Except for a few pesky atheists, my friends and I all defined ourselves as secular even as we fasted on Yom Kippur, took much pleasure in the way the streets cleared up on Friday afternoons, and directed our prayers—about girls we wished would notice us or older brothers we wished would make it home safely from the front—to God.
Not much has changed, according to this new survey. Yet when the findings were released, many of my colleagues on the Israeli left took to the op-ed pages to register their shock and lament the demise of modern Israel. The survey, went the common cri de coeur, was a sure sign of the impending apocalypse, which would finally turn the Jewish state into an intolerant theocracy.
Writing in Haaretz, journalist Uri Misgav argued that the findings reflected a “depressing ideological situation.” The disturbing thing “about those who believe in the theory of the Chosen People,” he wrote, “is the fear that they are not particularly smart,” perceiving the world on “an infantile theological level” that surely should have been vanquished by reason and modernity.
In the same paper, columnist Gideon Levy sounded even grimmer. “You have to give it to the pollsters,” he wrote. “They let the cat out of the bag. … Israeli society isn’t secular, it isn’t liberal, and it isn’t enlightened.”
It’s easy for me to understand Misgav and Levy. Like them, I consider myself a proud member of the battered and decimated tribe known as the Israeli left. Like them, I look with horror as brutes of all stripes—from hill-dwelling Jewish terrorists to Avigdor Lieberman and his comrades in Knesset—trample democracy’s core values. But in their disdain for and fear of religion, Misgav, Levy, and the lion’s share of the Israeli left fail to understand not only their past but also, more troubling, their future. Unless the Israeli left learns how to stop fearing and start loving—or at least understanding—religion, its chances of advancing a popular agenda are slim.
It’s tempting for secular, educated adults to see religion as the flickering remnant of a primitive fire that once guided mankind—a fire no longer necessary now that we have the quiet heat of science, technology, and rational thought. And it’s easy to look at an idea like divine election as nothing more than pure chauvinism. I used to entertain these notions. But two years ago, together with my friend and teacher Todd Gitlin, I decided to grapple with these ideas by writing a book.
What I learned startled me. Far from a simple call to exceptionalism, chosenness is a devilishly complex idea. At the height of the biblical drama, at the moment a collection of disparate tribes are made into a solid nation, God appears to the Israelites at Mount Sinai and bequeaths to them their status as his chosen sons and daughters. “And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests,” God says, “and a holy nation.” Why the Israelites? What does it mean to be chosen? Are the children of the chosen also chosen in perpetuity? God never tells.
The result is a never-ending quest, over the course of millennia, to solve this divine riddle. To have been chosen means spending a lifetime wondering about what it means to have been chosen. Some possible answers to this question align neatly with the Israeli left’s worst fears: Much of the settler movement is powered by an understanding of chosenness as a divine mandate to occupy land, even when others are living on it.
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