No part of the secular Zionist ethos is stronger than the idea of building a “new Jew.” From the movement’s earliest days, Zionist thinkers and activists placed as one of the movement’s highest goals the creation of a space for Jews to throw off the “shackles” of mitzvoth and embrace the wider world. Individuals such as Chaim Weizmann, C.N. Bialik, Ahad Haam and others wrote passionately about the Bible as a work of history, perhaps even an inspiring one. But they most definitely rejected the notion of a laws and commandments incumbent on a nation claiming to be a chosen people charged by God to create a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
In contrast to the image of the old, emaciated, bearded Jew, perennially bent over oversized tomes of holy books and terrorized at will by Russian/Polish/Lithuanian peasants (take your pick), Zionism sought to invigorate a new Judaism – devoid of tradition or Divine responsibility. Militant secularism ruled the day, going even so far as to consider a British offer to create a “Jewish territory” in East Africa instead of the Land of Israel. And why not? If the point of Zionism was to separate Jews from Judaism, what better way to go about it than separating Jews from the ancient dream of returning to the cradle of Jewish civilization?
Although the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1905 eventually rejected the “Uganda Plan”, the spriit of radical secularism ruled the Jewish community in Palestine for many decades. Orthodox Jews were routinely barred from jobs if they did not agree to send their children to “right headed” schools. Jewish Agency officials transferred refugee immigrants from Haifa port to ideologically anti-religious communities around the country.
As the State of Israel dawned, the new Jew ideology began to shape the new country’s legislative face. Although domestic political considerations forced the new Jews of the Labor Party to grant Orthodoxy a monopoly over “personal status” issues such as marriage and divorce, Prime Minister Davd Ben Gurion furiously resisted calls to apply halachic considerations to the newly crafted Law of Return.
“If one Jewish grandparent was good enough for HItler, it is good enough for us,” said the Old Man, and the law was set.
Sixty-five years later, Ben Gurion’s words continue to ring clear in light of the ongoing search for Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shayer and Naftali Frenkel, and the revelation that Ziad Awad, one of the 1,027 terrorists released in exchange for IDF hostage Gilad Shalit, was re-arrested on suspicion that he murdered Baruch Mizrahi on Passover eve.
Many, many Israelis worked hard for years to create a groundswell of public opinion in favor of the lopsided prisoner swap. Jewish wisdom be damned; if the Talmud says we should not pay over-sized ransoms so as not to encourage people to kidnap Jews. Even for those who reject the binding nature of halacha, at the very least the Talmud would seem to have posited solid advice for communal administration in the face of a rash of abductions.
But many Israelis continue to define themselves by what they are not (observant of Halacha), rather than by what they are. Said differently, they seem to operate on the principle of “if Jewish tradition says “A”, we’d better do “B.”
The awful confluence of Israel’s latest hostage “situation” and the arrest of Ziad Awad should bring a painful reality into clear focus: Israel will not survive in the long-run without the mettle to stand up to life in the Middle East, and without the backbone to stand up to pressure exerted by devastated family members.
And so, the question remains for Israel’s new Jews: Which of your two Zionist principles is stronger? Your commitment to maintaining a Jewish Democratic Country in the Land of Israel, or your fanatic commitment to resist all allusions to traditional Judaism?