A secular student won Israel’s famed International Bible Contest (Chidon ha-Tanakh in Hebrew), reportedly the first time this has occurred since the 1980s. The competition’s final rounds, held in Jerusalem on Yom Ha’atzmaut, are an annual televised event.
This year’s champ, Sagiv Lugassi, is a ninth-grader at a science and technology high school in Maalot. Ynet reported that he beat out contenders from the U.S., Mexico, Canada, South Africa, Panama, Belgium, and Brazil, but as Yair Rosenberg has explained and Wayne Hoffman (whose brother competed in the international contest) has reiterated, Israelis have historically (and controversially) had the upper hand in this “Jeopardy for Jews” since its inception more than five decades ago. Abroad, Chidon is more obscure. In Israel, promising would-be contestants are often given time off from school to study the biblical tractates they’ll be tested on. Some, like 1980 winner Neriah Pinchas, have prepared for the event since they were young children.
It’s not surprising, then, that an Israeli won this year’s Chidon. However, winners with a secular background are more of a rarity. Although Jewish Israelis of all backgrounds study the Bible, it is especially vital to the religious Zionist community. In a piece published Tuesday, JTA writer Ben Sales, who attended the 2005 quiz (which came at an especially tenuous moment in the debate over Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza), argues that the contest is often politicized by religious Zionists who use the rhetoric of the Bible to support West Bank settlements. Furthermore, Sales points out that online commentators have noted Lugassi’s Mizrahi descent because that community is known for its religious traditionalism, while others have noted that a religious contest would not be co-ed. In other words, they’re implicating that Lugassi is not truly secular, nor is the Chidon truly religious.
But politics aside, let the kid bask in his victory. He fared better than Benjamin Netanyahu’s son, Avner Netanyahu, who made it to the finals in 2010 only to flub the tricky final question―the one his father asks.
If you want an inside look at the mythos of Chidon, check out the documentary Bible Kings.
Zoe Miller is Tablet’s editorial intern. Follow her on Twitter here.