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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Jewish Nationalism and the Challenge of Its Uniqueness: Yeshiva Students and the Draft

With the development of what we may term modern Zionism, an issue arose as to the nature of the nationalism that was being asserted through this movement. Traditionally, the desire to return to Israel had religious roots and reflected an understanding of the unique nationality of the Jewish People. The goal through the ages was to return to the land but as a distinct Torah nation that would then meet these religious goals in the land given to the nation by God. This objective still found reflection in religious modern Zionism through the Mizrachi movement. Am Yisrael im Torat Yisrael b'Eretz Yisrael. To Mizrachi, the Jewish nation was not simply just another nation. The predominant secular elements of modern Zionism, however, did not see the desire for return in this manner. 
To Secular Zionists, the Jewish nation was a nation like any other -- and, to them, this is just what it should be. It was in this spirit that they demanded that the Jewish People itself should take action to re-gain the land of Israel and not just wait for Divine redemption. As a nation like any other nation, they declared that Jews should stop simply waiting for God to act on behalf of His Chosen People but rather should themselves do whatever is necessary to establish a state, just like any other nation would do whatever it deemed necessary. This comparison to all other nations was, though, not just a call to action, to act in the service of the nation as other nations would act in their own service. It was a further vision of nationhood. "David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel once quipped: 'We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew.'" The goal was a normal country like any other country and not a unique country in any way, let alone a unique Torah country. It removed God from the equation of Jewishness -- emphatically declaring that Jewish nationalism was like any other nationalism. A Jewish state should be like any other state.

We thus had was two visions of what Israel should be – and, on the surface, it would seem, these two visions of Jewish nationalism co-existed with each other, over the years, in the furtherance of a joint goal to create and preserve the State. The result was not a harmonious blending of values but rather an acceptance of a dichotomy of results as certain secular conclusions were reached in some areas of the State’s social being and other religious conclusions were reached in other areas. The result, however, did endure – and was able even to include the Charedi population as well. There was tension but there was also co-existence. What, however, was really the basis of this co-existence?

To answer that question, we have to further ask, what, in the mind of the secularists, was their vision of a Jewish state which was also like any other state? In defining the country as Jewish, and not just generic, there must be something unique about it, in any event, which inherently would distinguish it as Jewish. By definition, a Jewish State could not be a state like any other for it would be Jewish. The secular Zionist ideal, in fact, did include a powerful infusion of what it believed to be the essence of this Jewishness, which it derived from, actually, the Tanach. It, in fact, called for a re-focusing on our ancient historical roots -- as presented in the Biblical literature with individuals such as Dovid HaMelech (specifically, as presented, solely within the actual books of Tanach) as our models -- and a distancing from the model of the Diaspora Jew who was associated with the influence of the Talmud. The most powerful philosophical voice within the movement was that of Ahad Ha’am, the accepted thinker of modern Zionism – who clearly defined a Jewish ethos for modern secular Zionism. So being a state like any other state did not mean, to the secular Zionist, to not be a Jewish state – so what did they mean by a Jewish state still like any other state?

The answer, of course, lies in culture. All countries have their own individual culture; being a state like any other state does not mean that all states share the exact same, generic culture. It is thus expected that a Jewish State would have a unique Jewish culture – and in this regard even secular Zionists wished Israel to reflect Jewish culture. Israel should be like any other state with its own unique culture just as all states have their own unique culture.

It is in this regard that religious Zionists and secular Zionists could find some point of agreement for, even within the secular vision of Jewishness, so much of Jewish culture flows from the religious roots of Jewishness. It was within this perspective that, perhaps, the secularists were able to make peace with themselves for adopting religious initiatives into the law of Israel – these demands of the religious were still a part of Jewishness. Shabbat, kosher, the kippa – these were all parts of Jewish identity in the eyes of the world – could one really imagine a State of Israel that did not include these images? There were grumblings over the impositions of Halacha upon Israeli life – but there was the begrudging acceptance that it still did reflect Jewish culture. In this regard, there was overlap between the religious and the secular. The religious and secular Zionist could co-exist in a disagreement over the implementation, within the State, of Jewish culture – but it would still be Jewish culture.

So what, then, did the secularists really mean to exclude through its cry for a State like any other? From some thoughts I heard in regard to Gush Katif, I began to understand what the secularists really meant.  Their focus really was the issue of God-consciousness, which they, sadly, wanted absent in their Israel. They wanted a country that acted practically like any other, where the processes of thought in the furtherance of the country were similar to those processes applied by other countries. This reflected the initial break the secularists had with the religious – that Jews should act on their own rather than wait for God. It’s nationhood first, with religious observance the culture of the nation; not God first with commitment to nationhood part of His directive. (Further on this distinction, albeit in somewhat of a different context, see my National Identity, Nishma Introspection 5767-1.) Religious behavior per se was not the real concern of the secularists. Of course, they would like less imposed restrictions from Halacha but, as an argument within the parameters of Jewish culture, you win some, you lose some. But theocracy, and a perception of God-consciousness actually being part of the State’s functioning, that they could not tolerate. In the religious Zionists, who also took action to create the State, they did not perceive a force that would promote this view of theocracy – and thus they could work with them. Their disagreement with them, they could define as cultural.

What about, though, the Charedim? They clearly saw such commitment to God-consciousness as the purview of the Charedim but that they could tolerate, and even consider in such legislation as the exemption from the draft for yeshiva students. This, most likely, had something to do with the small size of the Charedi population. The Charedim were on the fringe. The actual functioning of the State was within the realm of the secularists and the religious Zionists who co-existed, in the minds of the secularists, in a battle over culture.
The yeshiva draft exemption was thus safe in this world. The perception was that the two groupings in charge – the religious Zionists and the secularists -- both still shared a vision of a nation like any other directed by humans. These two groups would both serve in the army. The God-conscious Charedim could be tolerated on the fringe. They were not in the mainstream of what Israel was in any event – and so they could have their yeshiva exemption from the draft. As the Charedi numbers swelled, however, some concern did develop within the secularists. It would not be easy for them to co-exist with a stronger expression of God-consciousness. With the growth of the Charedi population and their further involvement in Israeli society, the old concern of the secularists in regard to the religious was beginning to re-surface. This was an element that put pressure on the Charedim and the draft exemption. 

This, however, was not the only issue of God-consciousness and Jewish nationalism that was now flowing to the surface. This speaker on Gush Katif that I mentioned above posed the following question: why did secular Israeli society come down so hard on these settlers from Gush Katif who, eventually, were forced to leave their homes? The answer presented was that it was their specific mentioning of reliance upon God that angered the secularists. A state like any other state makes decisions through political and strategic analysis – and this was what, it was argued, was done in regard to Gush Katif. If the settlers were in disagreement with the conclusion reached through that process of human deliberation that would be one thing. But, according to this speaker, when the settlers started to say that there was no need to pack up as God would never let anyone move them from their homes, the secularists became inflamed. This was doubly so because these settlers were religious Zionists. They sounded, in the minds of the secularists, like the religious of old who argued that Jews must wait for God to take them out of the Diaspora.  The secularists could accept such an argument from Charedim, who they tolerated as a small minority reflecting the quaint religion of old, but not from their partners in the actual building of the nation. They saw a powerful God-consciousness in the religious Zionists which they previously chose to ignore. This left the secularists wondering about their partners in running the State.

To review, in the mind of the secularists, the reason they were able to form a coalition, of some nature, with the Mizrachi was because they believed that these religious Zionists, albeit that they were still religious, accepted a similar model for Israel – that the nation must make decisions as any other nation would make decisions. The secularists knew that the Charedim did not accept this vision but, given the size and influence of the Charedim, they were not deemed to be a problem – and as a minority within the State, they provided some diversity within the culture. The issue was active God-consciousness. To the secularists, Israeli policy had to be absent this. In the religious Zionists, the secularists thought that they had religious elements of the people who shared this vision. With Gush Katif, the secularists began to recognize that this was not so. When the settlers first went to Gush Katif, while they invoked God’s vision of Israel, the secularists only saw this chant as existing once the pragmatic, political decision to settle this land was already reached. Those who settled Gush Katif -- in fact, all who settled Yehduda and Shomron -- were still seen as on-side politically and strategically. When elements of the inhabitants of Gush Katif refused to leave, the secularists saw that this was not true. These religious Zionists, even as they also declared that the Jewish People should take steps on their own to settle Israel, the secularists began to recognize, also had a God-consciousness even similar to that of the Charedim. They both shared the existence of a God-consciousness that Avinu She’b’shamayim, Our Father in Heaven, guides the Jewish People. The issue between the Charedim and the religious Zionists was in how God does so guide His nation, not that He does. The fact is that, over the years, the religious Zionists have become more vocal in proclaiming their unique God-consciousness. With Gush Katif, it was emphatic. This presented an issue for the secularists but the vocalization of this God-consciousness within the religious Zionist community had been strengthening for a while. In this regard, it was also presenting an issue in regard to the Charedim and the yeshiva draft exemption. There was a different God-consciousness developing that specifically did not exclude the draft.

Israel was perceived to exist of three groupings – the secularists, the religious Zionists and the Charedim with, seemingly, the two former entities forming some type of partnership in governing the nation that, to the secularists, was based upon a principle of, it would seem, human responsibility. As such, it was perceived that the religious Zionists would join the army just like the secularists – with the Charedim, given their God-consciousness, not doing so. This understanding, though, was a mistaken one. The involvement of the religious Zionists in the army was not without a God-consciousness – in fact, it totally reflected a God-consciousness albeit different than that believed by the Charedim. This became more and more evident with the growth of the Hesder movement – army service was more and more seen to be in fulfillment of God’s demands upon His people. Gush Katif was, in a certain way, a case of how secularists confronted this recognition of a devout God-consciousness, albeit it different from the Charedim, within the religious Zionist population. The fact is that this unique God-consciousness of the religious Zionists was already existent albeit that the secularists may have not perceived it or not wanted to perceive it. 

What is now occurring with the issue of the draft for yeshiva students may also be, in certain way, a further reflection of this difference in understanding of God-consciousness – which is now coming more and more into the forefront. In that there are religious Zionists amongst the proponents for change in the draft law, an issue may also be a further enunciation of their understanding of what God wants. The issue in this regard is not the absence or promotion of God-consciousness (the issue for secularists) but rather what this vision of God-consciousness should be. What is now also occurring, on one front, in this present battle over the draft, is a battle over God-consciousness. The religious Zionists are no longer willing to ignore their vision of God-consciousness or to see it as anything less than the Charedi vision. In fact, their belief is that theirs is the optimum manifestation of proper God-consciousness. Hesder is correct; total exemption from the draft is not what God wants. The world is changing. Previously, the secularists were willing to accommodate the Charedim, as a small population, with their God-consciousness. The religious Zionists were also willing to do so for they inherently respected the God-consciousness in the Charedim. Now the religious Zionists may, though, be placing a priority on their own value of God-consciousness.

So, one of the root issues in regard to the yeshiva draft exemption may be the role of God in Jewish nationalism. The secularists have a problem with that role and, while willing to tolerate a little voice of God-consciousness within Israel, are concerned about a more dominant voice. With the growth of the Charedi population, the yeshiva draft exemption can be an issue for them in this regard. There is also, however, another debate over God-consciousness aside from that initiated by the secularists – a question of defining God-consciousness. The yeshiva draft exemption could be an issue in this regard as well; the exemption clearly challenges the religious Zionist view of proper God-consciousness. This question of defining God-consciousness, though, may also not just be an issue within the context of the Charedim and the religious Zionists. What we may be defining as the secular population in Israel may also be dealing with their own issue of God-consciousness. 

While the early non-religious Zionists were secular and wanted no part of religious consciousness within its national vision of Israel, this is not the case anymore. Even amongst the non-religious – or, for a better term, the non-observant or non-Orthodox – there is also a present issue with God-consciousness. It permeates through Jewish identity more than was thought. Yair Lapid, in his address at Kiryat Ono College, basically admitted, in his opinion, that the secular vision of Jewish nationalism had ultimately failed. What secular Zionist leaders, such as his father, failed to understand was the unique God consciousness which permeated the beings of most Jews. In the minds of this majority of Jews, there was always Avinu She'b'shamayim, Our Father in Heaven, Who had a unique relationship with His People, Am Yisrael, the nation of Israel. Regardless of the observance level of any singular Jew, this was part of the general Jewish consciousness of the majority of the people. While it took on many different manifestations, in thought and action, this consciousness was inherent to Jewish identity -- and thus had to be inherent to a Jewish State. As much as the early leaders of secular Zionism may have wanted a country like any other, they could not -- for the people who were forming this country were unlike any other people. They had this unique God consciousness that permeated their very national identity, even in the absence of Orthodox observance. There is now a growing population in Israel, outside of the Charedim and religious Zionists, who are also clamoring for the incorporation of their view of God-consciousness. This may also be affecting the issue of the yeshiva draft exemption – but it is clearly being felt in many aspects of Israeli life beyond that. 

This religious consciousness, in the nation as a whole, is perhaps seen in regard to issues such as those presented by the Women at the Wall. It is also seen in the growth of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel. The demarcations between religious (of this type) and secular are not so clear. This may be related to the fact that secular values and liberal religious values often overlap, Nevertheless, there are different formulations of what is termed religious being promoted throughout the country. The result is a lessening of a respect for the Charedi model especially as the only expression of religious consciousness, of God-consciousness. There may have been a time when secularists tolerated the quaint religion of the Charedim, allowing them, as a small group, in the observance of religion, to be exempted from the draft in the pursuit of their yeshiva studies. Nowadays, though, those being asked to accept the Charedi exemption are no longer just the secularists and these others may have an even stronger force of disagreement with this Charedi stance. Secularists, themselves, may also have problems today due to the Charedi numbers but the real issue in Israel today is this further recognition of God-consciousness in Israel and in Jewish identity in general. The challenge over the draft may be that many different elements in Israel are voicing different perceptions of Jewish God-consciousness, challenging the Charedi perception as the only one or the predominant one. This is extending beyond Orthodoxy.

The Secularists involved in the founding of Israel wanted a State like any other. What they did not recognize was that Jewish national identity was unlike any other national identity. There was inherent, for most Jews, a recognition of a special connection between the nation and Avinu She’b’shamayim. Recognition of this connection is growing in Israel but it is a connection that has many different shades of understanding – and, in our modern world, some not Orthodox. We, in many ways, are now experiencing in Israel, the first stages of how the country will respond to this shift. The further challenge to Orthodoxy will be that this new, open God-consciousness will not necessarily meet the parameters of Orthodoxy. It may also be less tolerant of Orthodox God-consciousness than the pure secularist. Looking on the positive side, one could say that the uniqueness of Jewish nationalism with an inherent God-consciousness is still being more and more enunciated. The reality, though, is that this also has its problems. The question is how to go ahead.

(Note: Within this issue of God-consciousness, I specifically did not deal with sincerity or propriety. What I am trying to identify is a matter of language, thought and/or form. A distinction between Halachic God-consciousness, within the parameters of eilu v’eilu must still be recognized – and my intent is not to place a non-Halachic God-consciousness in the same category as a Halachic one.
I also avoided dealing with the issue of whether some are invoking God to further their agenda or whether they really believe what they are saying. The very fact that these people are invoking a God-consciousness still must be noted.)

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