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Israel's halfhearted independence celebration

Israel is losing its modest and secular character in favor of a more religious and material society.
An ultra Orthodox Jewish man dances with a flag during celebrations for Israel's 63nd Independence Day celebrations in Tel Aviv May 10, 2011. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (ISRAEL - Tags: ANNIVERSARY MILITARY) - RTR2M7S6

On May 6, Israel celebrated its 66th Independence Day. It has a turbulent region surrounding it; almost the entire Middle East is ablaze. The enemies of the Jewish state are disbanding, slaughtering each other. Either they are preoccupied with their own domestic problems or they are simply worn out. From a security standpoint, never before has Israel's situation been better off. Its military, economic, technological and scientific supremacy shines out today more than ever before. On the face of it, this should have been a relaxing, happy independence day, expressing a sense of total fulfillment and perfect victory of the Zionist dream. But for some reason, reality does not seem to coincide with this premise.

The kids who usually can be seen at almost every intersection selling Israeli flags that get mounted on car windows were left almost without any work this year. Some parts of the waning independent media debated as to why fewer and fewer people identify with the state's values and objectives.

Uzi Baram — past secretary-general of the Labor Party, former minister and a proud Zionist — wrote an article in the Israeli daily Haaretz explaining why he would not be displaying the Israeli flag this year. Something feels off on this Independence Day holiday. Israel should have gotten to the point and age where it could relax for a minute, take a deep breath and enjoy life. Instead, internal anxiety is mounting. The gaps are widening and the "tribes" making up Israeli society are drifting apart. The Israeli whole, which has always been greater than the sum of its parts, is shrinking and is in danger of becoming smaller than them.

The main reason for this disconcerting phenomenon is that Israel is losing its bearings. To put it more precisely, it is changing course. The Israel of 2014 is in a different place than where its founding fathers dreamed it would be. Sometimes it seems that the change is minuscule. All in all, the state (against all odds) exists. It is thriving and prospering. But the process of change, which was almost unnoticeable a decade or two ago, has become a fait accompli. Even the minutest change in the azimuth ultimately leads you, at the end of the road, to a much different place than the one you aspired for. Israel is undergoing constant change. "Israeliana" is fighting for its seniority, but is losing ground to "Jewishness." Pragmatism and flexibility, aspiration for regional harmony and peace are losing traction in the battle vis-a-vis messianism. Modesty has made way to hoggish appetite. Social cohesion and mutual support are capitulating to unbridled capitalism. Social gaps are swiftly widening. Reality caves in and submits to fantasy and uninhibited ambitions. In light of this, fewer people sympathize with their own state and not everyone feels happy.

Throughout its history, never has the land been abandoned or left without Jews. Tens of thousands of Jews lived on the lands of Israel over the years, mainly in Jerusalem, Safed, Hebron and Tiberias. The old yishuv, which is what the community of Jews living in Palestine was called, lived in accordance with tradition. It was a religious and almost unproductive society that relied heavily on the benevolence of rich Jewish philanthropists who gave money to the various communities in what was called halukka (charity) money. This observant Jewish community was fashioned after the Jewish communities and the Jewish shtetl in the diaspora, namely Jews who devoted themselves entirely to Torah studies, living in closed ghettos and surrounded by a hostile population. They had neither national aspirations nor a desire to lead an independent existence.

Then Zionism emerged. The first Zionist immigration took place in 1881. Since then and over the early decades of the 20th century, these waves of immigration swelled, helping to establish the new yishuv, mainly in Jaffa and subsequently in Tel Aviv (1909) — the first Hebrew town — and in Haifa as well as in other parts of the land. These were entirely different Jews with two main aspirations. The first one was to set up an independent state and establish a national home in the land of Israel. The second one was to tear down the walls of the ghetto and do away with isolationism in a bid to become a normal people. Seeking to sever the ancient shackles of religion and set up a new, young, vibrant and productive society, these new Jews put away the black garb and odd-looking fur hats. The pioneers of those waves of immigration and the founders of the Zionist state were both secular and pragmatic. They abhorred the phenomenon of the Jewish shtetl. Sick of the diaspora way of life, they wanted to establish a normal state and be like "all other nations."

The Declaration of Independence, which was signed by the state's founders on May 14, 1948, as soon as David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister, proclaimed independence, defined Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state." It did not prefer democracy to Judaism or vice versa. On the ground, the principles were clear. Judaism did not play a pivotal role in Israel's way of life. During the struggle against the British rule in Palestine, the main slogan that was chanted in the demonstrations of the yishuv was "free immigration, Hebrew state" [as opposed to Jewish, and reminiscent of the Ancient Hebrews]. Jewish terminology was not mentioned there, nor was it what motivated modern Zionism. The pioneers set up kibbutzim, where religion was marginalized.

In a riveting autobiography that was recently published by former Knesset member Uri Avnery — one of the most fascinating and intrepid Israeli journalists and politicians who took part in the establishment of the state, and became a prominent voice in the call for peace — this process is addressed in many chapters. Not only did the founders of Zionism and the state ignore and ''discount'' religion, some of them actually considered themselves to be Canaanites. They tied their own destiny to that of this place, drawing mostly on its territory and geography and not on some religious affinity.

In recent decades all of this has changed. Israel is becoming increasingly more religious and radical. A massive wave of Jews turning to religion is washing over its cities. The demographic map is rapidly changing. Israel still remains a secular state, yet its secular majority is shrinking at breakneck speed. Already today, 6-year-old first-graders in Israel are divided almost in half between "Zionist" children and those defined as non-Zionist (ultra-Orthodox or Arab Israelis). In tandem, religious Zionism is growing and radicalizing, taking a fast sharp turn to the right. The historic National Religious Party (NRP), the traditional party of religious Zionism, was originally a moderate, mild party that did not lead the political right and went along with the ideas of negotiations and peaceful coexistence with the Arabs. In the recent elections, the HaBayit HaYehudi Party, which succeeded the NRP, raked in 12 seats (out of 120). It is a far-right standard bearer that rules out negotiations with the Palestinians, rejecting the two-state solution while openly advocating the annexation of major parts of Judea and Samaria to Israel.

These phenomena carry implications also for our daily lives. Religion progressively dominates public discourse. While we are still a far cry from what Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is doing, this seems, however, to be the general direction in which we're headed. Despite the fact that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not include ultra-Orthodox parties — mainly thanks to anti-religious Finance Minister Yair Lapid — the dominance of religion in the life of Israelis is increasing. Towns and neighborhoods are rapidly being taken over by the ultra-Orthodox population, which enjoys a high natural birth rate — one of the highest in the world. The public sphere is also starting to change. Not long ago, during Passover, people reported on their Facebook pages that when they wanted to visit the maternity ward at the hospital, the guard at the entrance insisted on inspecting the chocolate they brought with them as a present. He wanted to ensure that it was in keeping with the kosher-for-Passover dietary laws. The number of kosher restaurants keeps rising steadily, while the number of non-kosher restaurants is gradually declining.

Rabbis and religious figures have more influence than ever before on the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Military chaplains read sermons and special prayers to soldiers before they set out for battle (a phenomenon that was reported during Operation Cast Lead 2008-09.) A growing number of soldiers walk out during public performances when women start singing, since this is prohibited according to the ultra-Orthodox interpretation of Judaism, albeit permissible by Jewish law. The free secular spirit and unfettered liberalism are all on the defensive. They have yet to be defeated and have yet to lose their seniority, but for the first time they are encountering a tough, growing and uncompromising rival.

When we add the above to the fact that there is no earnest peace process and that many Israelis realize that their government is not truly seeking peace, we end up with what we are getting on Israel's 66th Independence Day: a sour, halfhearted celebration dipped in concern. This is not yesteryear's Israel. This is a different Israel.

This article is not a requiem to Israel. I would advise those of you reading this article and rubbing their hands with hopeful glee to relax. Israel continues to be a supreme success story, especially against the backdrop of the events taking place around it. The establishment and the prosperity of the State of Israel, amid a hostile region saturated with enemies, are nothing short of a once-in-a-lifetime miracle. When the 1948 War of Independence broke out, the Jewish yishuv counted some 600,000 people. Facing five Arab countries as well as the local Arab population, it defeated all of them. During that war, the yishuv lost 1% of its population in the heavy battles.

Immediately after the war, the young nation took in massive waves of immigration — three times the size of the existing population within just a few number of years. All of this gave rise to a fascinating country with the highest rate of Nobel Prize laureates. It has a stable, growing economy and cutting-edge science. It is a global high-tech empire that launches satellites to space and has the most sophisticated and strongest military in the region. Within a short number of years, it was able to develop a short-range missile-interception system (the only one of its kind in the world). Boasting a diverse, vibrant society, it has a rich culture and modern health care system. The level of satisfaction and happiness of its residents is counted among the highest in the world (which is a miracle in its own right.)

There is no other county in the world like Israel. Both its enemies and aficionados know that. But ominous clouds are collecting over the Jewish state's sky. Its internal processes pose a threat to its character and uniqueness as well as to its ability to preserve these assets that made it what it is. Israelis have always known that they could stand up to any foreign enemy. The main threat to Israel comes from within.

Those who love the Zionist state — as I do — hope that it will find the strength to resolve these internal struggles without losing its character and identity. And let there be peace upon Israel. 

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