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Israel Is Divided By A Bitter Culture War

American Council For Judaism
Special Interest Report
July-August 1998

The dispute between religious and secular Jews in Israel, writes Serge Schmemann in The New York Times (July 21, 1998) "has steadily intensified in fury and emotion. It is common now to hear references to Kulturkampf, a culture war in which the secular ‘Tel Aviv’ and the religious ‘Jerusalem’ are battling for the very soul of Israel."  

One casualty of this culture war, Schmemann states, is "civility." Receiving a life-time achievement award at the Jerusalem Film Festival this spring, for example, the Israeli filmmaker Assi Dayan congratulated organizers for putting on so fine a festival "in this damned city." Then, turning to Mayor Ehud Olmert, he loosed another curse: Please tell your friend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "that he should go to hell." Mr. Dayan is the son of the late Israeli military hero Moshe Dayan. "Such language has ceased to shock," declares Schmemann.  

Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi writes: "What we’re seeing is really an apocalyptic debate, for the religious and secular are both convinced that if the other side wins, the country will be destroyed. The secular scenario is simple: If the country becomes a theocracy, the secular middle class, which keeps Israel productive . . . will leave, and this country will become a real ghetto, and Israel, as a theocracy, will be destroyed. On the other side . . . there is the idea that we were in this land twice before, and both times we lost because we didn’t follow God’s law. When the religious looks at Tel Aviv culture . . . he sees the beginning of the end of the Third Commonwealth. That’s the tragedy here: the protagonists aren’t always aware why they feel so passionate."  

The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by a religious nationalist stunned the country by revealing the depth of radicalization in the religious right. Israeli author David Grossman writes: "There was a debate and suddenly the religious people brought in a gun. They showed that even though we had a state, they were more committed to God’s laws. We’re fighting now for our future. Why now? Because everything is sharper now, because we’re facing the crucial point of deciding how to live in the next 50 years. Will we have peace? Will we internalize the idea of concession to neighbors? Will we create borders only or create a quality of life in those borders? Are we going to survive only, or will we seek something more than surviving from one catastrophe to another? All the crucial questions of our identity rise again. They dictate our political behavior, the way we treat each other."  

Discussing his recent visit to Israel, Leonard Fein, columnist for The Forward (July 17, 1998) reported that, "An Israeli friend whose job it is to help public schools teach both democracy and Judaism tells me that when she visits the religious schools, she’s told, ‘Yes, we’ll teach both, but do we have to use the word ‘democracy?’ And when she visits the secular schools, they say to her, ‘Yes, we’ll teach both, but do we have to use the word ‘Judaism?’ And all that is, of course, dramatically more complex on account of the mutual corruption that the absence of a wall of separation between state and religion begets."  

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