The Roots under the Topsoil

By Elyakim Ha'etzni

Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post of May 29, 1996

For the first time in their history, the ultra-religious Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah parties have addressed the non-observant public in their election campaign. Their TV commercials show teenagers sitting in pubs and drinking beer, and youngsters risking their lives on fast motorcycles.

Using a Hebrew word play, the message is: "We are haredim? You are haredim!" (We are God-fearing; but you are fearful). Of what? Of the consequences of a life without values, purpose or meaning. From there, they segue (a little too abruptly to convince) to pictures of side-curled children studying in a traditional heder.

The National Religious Party's approach, which also mainly targets the secular public, is more convincing. You needn't immediately fulfill all 613 religious obligations, the NRP soothingly maintains, but you must decide on a direction, choose an orientation. Do you want a Jewish state and society, or do you choose assimilation - spiritual assimilation into universalism, and political assimilation into a "New Middle East"?

Election results aside, these campaigns have served to accelerate an exceptionally interesting and gripping process: the quest for identity. It is generally accepted that this time the vast majority of haredim will not only vote for Binyamin Netanyahu, but will do it with a physical and emotional involvement never witnessed before. Similarly, it is common knowledge that an overwhelming majority of Israeli Arabs will vote for Shimon Peres, as part of their Palestinian national struggle.

Here we have a public whose identity is anti-Zionist forcefully affecting the course of what until recently was known as the Zionist state. Suddenly, a Jewish community which defines itself as anti-Zionist or at least non-Zionist struggles and votes for Zionism in its most classical meaning: for the Land of Israel, for Hebron and Jerusalem, places which, for all their spiritual significance, are earthly, worldly assets.

At first glance, this phenomenon stands in stark contradiction to the classical image of the stereotypical observant Diaspora Jew -detached from the land and anything mundane, totally immersed in ancient scrolls and tomes.

On the opposite side of the political spectrum, Peres surprisingly embraces a new philosophy totally alien to the traditional Zionist ethos: a new, computerized spirituality that replaces material values of any kind. Neither land, nor even natural resources are important - only the quarries of the human mind. It was Peres who said in a speech at the University of Pennsylvania: "The more land we give up the more Ph.D.s per kilometer we have - so we are going to make a living on the Ph.D.s, and not on the mileage." It is the old, classical Diaspora concept of "a light unto the nations." Light travels in space, not on the surface plane.

What we have here is a process of reorientation crystallizing in our people's psyche: The Arab anti-Zionists joining forces with the post-Zionist Jews, whose aim it is to rid themselves of their individual, as well as collective, Jewish identity - the Jewish state. Thus the Jewish "National Camp" is now reinforced by masses of proto-Zionist haredim attempting to salvage the Jewish soul which may still flicker somewhere inside the new Israeli of Jewish origin.

The Oslo storm has swept away the thin, artificial topsoil of Herzlian Zionism, laying bare the roots of two historic currents: The Jewish religion and traditions, in which the physical and spiritual Land of Israel are an indivisible component, as opposed to the historic tendency to assimilate with others - from the Canaanites to the Hellenists, Christianity and Islam, and now into a cosmopolitanism devoid of any national identity.

The choice is clear: A Jewish state; or a "state of its inhabitants." Elections alone cannot secure a final, decisive outcome for such a momentous Kulturkampf. But these elections have given our internal "cold war" a push forward toward the final showdown, which is as inevitable as it is bound to be painful.

National identity is moulded by convulsions: Two revolutions in England, one in France, a civil war in the US. Let us pray that ours will be a "glorious" upheaval, at least in the sense of being bloodless. (c) JPFS 1996

ELYAKIM HA'ETZNI is a lawyer and former MK who lives in Kiryat Arba.

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