The Spirit is in the Streets

Israeli protesters need a bigger, better story


Oren Rozen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Zionist leadership was motivated by keen rationalism, shorn of any of the mystical elements typical of messianism. But by concluding that only human intervention would redeem the Jewish people, and that they must no longer wait for divine action, the Zionists actually secularized the notion of the Messiah.”  

Y. Melman, “The New Israelis” p110 

How the Sides are Drawn 

1. From “passionate intensity” to secular-liberalism

My father, who was born in Jerusalem in 1926, rarely spoke of his past. When I asked him about his WW2 experience in the British army, he mumbled something about the battle of El-Alamein adding that he was too young to fight. To his chagrin he became an errand boy. When he returned to Palestine, he was drafted into the Palmach, the elite forces of the Haganah. No details. Taciturn. The only exception to his life-long recalcitrance was the time I asked him about his feelings on the 14th of May, 1948, when Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel. Even then he hesitated and asked whether I did not have other things to do. I insisted and he relented. I recall that he sat me down at our kitchen table. He poured  himself a full glass of cheap whisky and a thimbleful for me. He paused and, choosing his words carefully, said: 

We were not at the Tel Aviv Museum where the Declaration was read. My unit was girding for war which we knew was in the offing. We were ill-equipped and anxious and as much as we were also ecstatic, we felt that Ben Gurion was playing to the gallery. He spoke as a prophet but not as a visionary. He declared the establishment of the State and gave it a name but did not say anything about the original  vision which had everything to do with creating ‘New [Humans]’- who would be  authors of their own fate and  equal participants in the work of shaping and forming the destiny of their nation and our species. Ben Gurion made it seem as though Jewish history was a circle, and that Jews were simply returning from a very long trip abroad.  His presentation lacked a sense of the miraculous, the magic, the sense of divine intervention which was clearly embracing us all.

The late, great Viennese-Israeli thinker, Amos Elon, put my father’s concerns more succinctly. He wrote that the myth which inspired the founders was all about the creation of a new and just society. “The new society as envisaged by the early pioneers, was to be another Eden, a Utopia never before seen on sea or land. The pioneers looked forward to the creation of a “New Man.” A national renaissance, they felt, was meaningless without a structural renewal of society… As late as 1928, leading pioneers still considered the vision vastly more vital than the national ideal. When Nazism forced Zionism to become a straightforward rescue operation that clashed with British restrictions on immigration to Palestine, the emphasis began to change from vision to national issues. The vision has since been watering down.” 


Ben Gurion consistently favored the national project over the moral principle.  Moshe Dayan once claimed that Ben Gurion believed that “ anyone who approaches the moral aspect of the  Zionist problem is no Zionist.” ( see Eldar & Zertal’s “ Lords of the Land” p 13-14).  

In 1960,  Prime Minister Ben Gurion ordered Israeli operatives to capture the architect of The Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann, and bring him to trial in Jerusalem. For five long months, survivors of the Holocaust were invited to tell their stories: excruciating, heartbreaking reports of senseless murder, torture, and unimaginable evil. But at the trial’s end, even as Eichmann was ushered to the gallows, no one better understood the origins or the nature of anti-Semitism. The trial was televised and broadcasted internationally, but no one thought to ask Eichmann how it was that hatred or cold-blooded destiny could have gone so far out of control as to translate into the murder of millions of innocent people. At the end of the day what remained was not greater insight but a further dilution of the original vision which required a measure of forgetfulness, a clean break from the past, and perhaps a disdain for those who constituted bygone eras. No question that the exposure of Sabras (children of Jewish descent, born or raised in Palestine/ Israel) to the horrors of the Holocaust, sapped much of the extraordinary energy which realizing the original vision demands. How then, are we to understand why Eichmann was brought to trial rather than killed as was the “Butcher of Riga” who had also escaped to Argentina? 

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On April 23rd, 2023, Tom Hurwitz, whose father Leo Hurwitz directed the television coverage of the Eichmann trial, published a brief essay in the Sunday edition of the New York Times. Hurwitz claimed that the Eichmann trial was not about fascism or anti-Semitism, but an opportunity for Ben Gurion and the Jewish Agency to rebrand the Zionist movement: “While the early days of Zionism extolled muscular, self-sufficient pioneers” Hurwitz wrote, “that image had not aged well in the postwar world.” Hurwitz could have gone farther. He could have claimed that for Ben Gurion and for the Jewish Agency the idea of Israel as a nation-state, a Jewish homeland, and a refuge, had always trumped the vision which transcended the state–which defined the state as a place from which a new world order would someday arise. To Ben Gurion and to The Jewish Agency, this vision was anathema, noise, which only got in the way of a hard reality which had to be confronted each morning and every night.


The history of dilution, which recounts how it happened that a vision originally considered a fire which could not be consumed or contained was re-defined as cliché and then evaporated into thin air, constitutes a large swath of Israeli history from which an indefinite number of milestones could be carved out. One could address the big wars and the small ones which focused Israelis on issues near at hand at the expense of the spark which became ever more remote. One could consider the effect of further immigration or the so-called “mahapakh” of 1977, which was when Menahem Begin’s Likud won the government from the Labor Party that had ruled the country since Independence. One could think about the gradual disassembly of a dozen public institutions–the paramilitary “gadna”, the kibbutzim and collective “moshavim” which held on to the vision longer than most. One could consider the abandonment of efforts to “secularize” religious holidays or the gradual defunding of the daily doses of positive ideology in schools and in after-school programs. One could take the measure of forces which undid the hegemonic rule of the Histadrut (national labor union) or consider the undoing of early insistence on Hebrew as the only tolerable mode of communication.  

In such shapes and forms, all of the above became the turpentine which erased and defaced the big dream and went on to refashion Israel so that it soon began to seem as a nation like any other–with its own thieves and prostitutes, its peculiar roster of issues, rhythms, rhymes, cacophony.


All of this would perhaps be fine had the various players which constitute Israel’s internal mosaic respected the incoming liberal ideology and had the state respected the hundreds of subcultures which made their pallet on the country’s floor. Though very far from ideal, liberalism and secularism could have perhaps remained sustainable. Even if the state did not abide by its commitments to “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants… to ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all of its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex;” even if the Israeli government did not “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture,” as promised in the Declaration of Independence, still the state could be sustained, flourish and grow. So yes, violations of rights and pushbacks from various sectors would render the country more volatile and less governable than it would be otherwise. And yes, unjust treatment of minorities, most significantly of Arab minorities in Israel and in the West Bank would remain morally reprehensible and politically dangerous. But probably Israel would survive and prevail, perhaps only with further militarization. 

But the hazy liberalism,  the impossible electoral system which currently exists, cannot and most probably will not be able to ensure the future of the state my father and I fought for. This state, for better and worse, cannot persist against the extreme forces introduced into the system by one particular subculture which has gone to great distances to provide itself with a vision, a mission, a calling as intense and fiery as the vision which made Israel possible in the first place. 

The reclusive and insular Orthodox Jewish communities in Israel, could easily or perhaps not so easily, continue to coexist within the Israeli heterodox reality. Except for the occasional ridiculousness (e.g. funding Arafat) this community has removed itself sufficiently far as to constitute no real obstruction.  Israel, in turn, has provided the Haredi community with freedom extraordinaire; with carte blanche exemptions from military service, with state funding for Yeshivas, with amazing health care, and on and on. But even as the Orthodox community has not challenged the liberal framework, it has given rise to a peninsula, an arm, an outgrowth which is now threatening to bring the roof down over everyone’s head. This rather newly knitted movement has latched itself to the old-time religion and drew to it many of the Orthodox and swept all of Israeli society, sometimes kicking and screaming, into a  great vortex, a downward spiral which may have no bottom.  

2.  The rise of “religious zionism/ “Gush Emunim” 

By hook and crook and by a hazy idea of redemption, this movement, which trades under the name “religious Zionism” but could just as easily be called “the settler movement,” has filled the lacuna in which the old vision once resided. The movement was perhaps given its first shape in the late 19th century–by Rabbis Alkilai and Kalischer who attempted to weld the ancient religion to recent Zionist awakenings. But the most significant force  came from another direction–from a visionary Rabbi of the old school who is remembered as simply “Ha Rav” (The Rabbi). 

 Abraham Isaac Kook, upon whom the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, conferred the honorable status “the last Kabbalist,” was born in Latvia in 1865, the year that the American Civil War finally ended. He studied in the Volozhin Yeshiva and after spending WW1 in Britain, he reached Palestine, becoming the chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. In the early 20s, Kook published “Orot” which was deemed a sorcerer’s book and forbidden to orthodox Jewry.  

Kook wrote:

Secular Zionists may think they do it for political, national, or socialist reasons but in fact–the actual reason for them coming to resettle in Israel is a religious Jewish spark in their soul, planted by God. Without their knowledge, they are contributing to the divine scheme. The role of religious Zionists is to help seculars establish a Jewish state and turn the spark into a great light. They should show them that the real source of Zionism is Judaism and teach them Torah. In the end, they will understand that the laws of Torah are the key to true harmony that will be a light for the nations and bring salvation to the world. 

(See “Religious Zionism”/ ideology/ Wikipedia)

Kook’s writings, with elaboration by his son Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, became the marching orders for supplicants seeking to extend the State’s borders to biblical proportions. Since September 1967, when Hanan Porat, a young paratrooper who would study at Kook’s seminary, Merkaz HaRav in Jerusalem, hammered in the first stake of Kfar Etzion in the newly conquered territories, the religious Zionist movement has continuously expanded. It has constructed a social, political, and economic framework comparable and probably more efficient than the one constructed by the earlier guard. The movement has also attracted more than a fair share of madmen and insane murderers such as Dr. Baruch Goldstein, fascist politicians including Meir Kahana, and Yigal Amir, who on the 4th November 1995 assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. 

Kook’s writing is central to the settler mindset and to the mindsets of hundreds of thousands of religious Zionists who have made their home outside but also inside the Green Line. By a circuitous route that winds and threads through Kahanism, Kook’s doctrines have also shaped the very souls of Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich who now lead “Otsmah Yehudit” and The Nationalist Religious- Tkuma Party respectively. It is these two parties, in a coalition with an opportunistic Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that control 64 seats in the 120 seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament. And it is this coalition which must now face the music.  


This then is the way that the sides are drawn––a rock and a hard place. On the one side an erev rav––a  vast array of very powerful Israelis, ex-generals and ex officio CEOs, bankers, union heads, scholars, high-tech prodigies, everyday Israelis who spill into the streets each weekend by the hundreds of thousands. On the other side, Rabbi Kook’s disciples holding the Prime Minister in firm but perhaps voluntary head-lock, but also inspiring hundreds and thousands of sympathizers who are now hitting the pavement in support of their government. What we are getting is the great stand-off, Israel vs. Israel–the threat of a civil war. 

It is possible to frame the stand-off differently, less histrionically, perhaps without the backstory and maybe without the theatre. One could try and understand what is going on, as so many have tried, as no more than opposition to the coalition’s proposed judicial overhaul. On this view, the standoff could dissolve, should the Prime Minister back off the proposed legislation. To go with this option is probably to overstate the protesters’ commitment to a court which has played its assigned role of check on legislative powers rather tepidly. Haaretz journalist, Anshel Pfeffer, was surely correct when he claimed that “if the government pushing to reform the powers of the Supreme Court was not dominated by religious parties–Shas, United Torah Judaism, Religious Zionism, and Otzma Yehudit–the protest would be much more limited and basically consist of Meretz and a few Labor voters. And the only news organization covering the protests would be Haaretz.” (March 10, 2023)

One could claim that the protesters are out to save democracy. But if this way of framing the protests is accepted, then it must come with a caveat stating that both the current Israeli electoral system and the proportional representation which currently granted seats in the Knesset to ten parties, favors the Religious Zionist/Hardi community. So if secular-liberal Israelis are said to be advocating for “democracy” it must be that they are also and at the same time advocating for major system-wide reform. Otherwise, they are shooting themselves in the foot.  

To frame the protests as a secular uprising is closer to the truth, except that secularism and liberalism lack sufficient passionate intensity to hold together this leaderless movement. Does it make sense to suggest that the great force which keeps drawing people into the streets is fear of theocracy or, on the other hand, an ineluctable commitment to a halachic state? Is this the rock and the hard place? Can fear which is negative hold back the positive, messianic movement?  At a recent event held at President Herzog’s residence, the Jerusalem Post’s senior commentator and Fellow at the Hartmann Institute, Amotz Asa-El, argued that each of the past 12 civil wars in Israel ended 80 years of sovereignty. His point was a warning. Israel at 75 is coming close to the watermark which has sealed its fate in the past. Can disaster be averted? Could one not see in and around the tensions developing in the streets, an opportunity to attain greater stability, more intensity, and freedom? Is it possible to imagine that the struggle which may, of course, be negotiated away, should not be negotiated away; that Israelis should seize the moment, form the momentum and shape it into a ladder capable of reaching beyond itself? The religious Zionist movement won’t take such an initiative. Only the protesters will do that. But to do that they must drop the demand for a country that is like all others and opt instead for the original vision which called on Israel to become “ Or Lagoyim”, ( Light unto Nations). They must ask themselves how to re-imagine the social, political, economic, and religious institutions so as to promote the gradual emergence of citizens who are Human Beings before they are anything else. To sustain such efforts they must commit to Tikkun Olam, the Big Fix, an orientation which goes forward on the first law of ecology which is the assumption that everything is connected to everything else and to solve one big problem requires solving all of them.

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