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November 2nd, 2013 |

Vegetable garden, Rodges, Germany, 1940; photo accessed from the Kvutzat Yavneh Archives

The Death of “Torah ve-Avodah”

The religious Zionist camp is not participating in the social protests, and ignoring the people involved and the topics raised. Bambi Sheleg writes about the processes that brought about this situation and questions whether a change in this trend is likely.

The cemetery at Masuot Yitzhak was teeming with thousands of people. Yoske Ahituv, a leader of the Religious Kibbutz Movement, member of Kibbutz Ein Tsurim, and one of the founders of the Religious Kibbutz Movement’s network of yeshivas, passed away at the beginning of the summer of 2012, on the 15th of Sivan.

As I left the funeral, I was struck with the realization that a chapter in the history of religious Zionism had come to a close. The modesty, the humility, the moderation in matters personal and religious, the generosity and the illuminated face of Yoske Ahituv, all seemed part of a world that once was, and was no longer. On our way home, I turned to my husband: “Imagine how religious Zionism would look today, and what Israel would look like, if religious Zionism had remained loyal to its original path – if the majority had gone the way of Yoske.” Since then, the thought has been gnawing at me unrelentingly.

Sadness overwhelms me. Sadness for years lost in bitter struggles between sectors of the Israeli population. Sadness over the immense neglect of complete areas of life: education, health, welfare, higher education, housing for all, employment, human and workers’ rights, culture. Sadness over the endless struggle not just between us and the Arabs, but also among ourselves.

I am writing these words the morning after Moshe Silman ignited himself in downtown Tel Aviv. There are many things that I believe would never happen in Israel, and this was one of them. But then again, I never believed that the National Insurance Institute would be so cruel to needy people who had served in the army, who paid taxes when they were making a living. I did not believe that one day I would be part of a country where they throw people into the street, where the economic establishment preys on those who are not wealthy. Now I see it all the time. I see how the national system fawns on the financially and politically able, and turns its back on all the rest. I see how the public-at-large, which bears the brunt of the load, does not interest the decision makers. And how those who least interest the decision makers are the poor, the sick, and the elderly. All of those who lack an “economic horizon.” The pleas to National Insurance ascend to the heavens, as the bureaucracy functions as a nearly impenetrable barrier to aid seekers: countless humiliating examinations are required to prove eligibility, countless hassles, and lawyers who receive bonuses from the National Insurance Institute every time they manage to get claims rejected or reduced.

Privatization carries on unchecked. The rights of the public in many areas are trampled, the media refrains from covering entire portions of Israeli reality and is raising a generation of angry individuals; banks, tycoons and other “centralized” industries are growing richer at the expense of the general population, whose agenda is held captive to the “policy makers” whose values were shaped far from here, and who have no commitment to us; our pensions are in the hands of brokers who care nothing about our financial future, and deduct insane “administration fees” – if we only knew on what grounds these astronomic fees are justified; the prices of all products are hitting the ceiling, and no one knows how our grown children are going to be able to have a roof over their heads; there is a small group for whom the method is good, and there is a gigantic population of people whose financial and civilian future is shrouded in fog. The national system has rotted; we are being transformed from citizens into subjects.

The sector that I grew up in, the national-religious world, educates its children towards establishing Torah-based groups of young people to settle in cities where there is no significant Zionist-religious population. In addition, a tremendous investment is made in cultivating the idea that it is imperative to serve in the army and to take part in the demanding national burden in the fullest manner possible. But these national-political questions that are unrelated to topics held dear by the religious public do not draw interest, and in their stead, a strange agenda particular to this sector has developed: women’s singing, modesty and the future of the outposts over the Green Line.

How, I ask myself, did this cultural-spiritual-social catastrophe occur? What went awry in the DNA of the religious-Zionist world? Where did the burning belief in the equality of man as a religious idea disappear to? Since when does religious Zionism lift its eyes to the economic tidings from American WASP culture? From whence the hatred of the values of Jewish-based socialist solidarity on which Bnei Akiva was built? Wherefrom the blasé attitude and contempt towards the young activists fighting for economic-social-cultural policies that will offer a future for us all? Do they truly think that the supporters of the protest are all “red” ideological zealots? How can they not see that the economic method in whose name they swear degrades all of our values as a society?

Sadness overwhelms me. Sadness for years lost in bitter struggles between sectors of the Israeli population. Sadness over the immense neglect of complete areas of life: education, health, welfare, higher education, housing for all, employment, human and workers’ rights, culture. Sadness over the endless struggle not just between us and the Arabs, but also among ourselves.

The loss of a religious path – and in our case, the loss of the religious-Zionist path – is a result of self-forgetting, and the lack of connection between the values on which Bnei Akiva was founded and the values that have been fashioning the mature image of religious-Zionist education over the past decades. The path of Torah ve-Avodah (Torah and labor), based on justice, honesty, simplicity, the war for workers’ rights, mutual responsibility, and obligation towards every Jew – an unconditional obligation – has been lost to the depths.

Total Struggle for Separation of the Sexes

This loss of direction originates in the exceptional influence of the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva on the Bnei Akiva movement, which has transferred its partnership with the general Zionist movement to one with a strict religious movement that for decades has been trying to force its agenda onto Israeli society and in particular, onto religious society. This is a loss of direction whose main thrust is not (despite what many mistakenly believe) the attempt to settle the territories of Judea, Samaria and Gaza. Its main thrust, rather, is the attempt to force religious individuals to forgo their religious autonomy and to subject generations of religious people to the ideas of rabbis in whose view Bnei Akiva’s historical path was headed the wrong way.

These rabbis and their students have been fighting for dozens of years against the idea of a society shared by men and women, co-ed education, co-ed youth movements, and more. In their eyes, there has been no greater woe to the Jews than the mixed company of men and women, and young men and women spending time together. They have lumped all of Judaism’s sacredness into this idea, and a substantial portion of their religious energies have been and are still directed towards the total struggle for separation of the sexes. The government’s policies on the matter of our nation’s poor and all other abovementioned topics do not interest them as much as the question of how we should dress a girl so that she will be modest and pure according to their ways. At least two generations of young religious people have been exposed to these positions as if they were Mosaic Law, as if there was no blunt and violent attempt to take over the religious character of the population that grew up in Bnei Akiva and implant within it an element of personality surrender and castration vis-à-vis positions claimed to be Torah views: these, and no others.

The process of separatism undergone by the religious-Zionist population, and the internal Israeli “world war” on the question of the future of the territories that Israel occupied in the Six-Day War, aroused deep intra-religious fury against the “old elites” and their cold treatment of the communities in Judea and Samaria. The “historical covenant” between the Labor Party and religious Zionism has been eroded, and the religious population has joined forces with the Israeli right on questions of the future of the Land of Israel. Over the years, this covenant has grown stronger, focusing initially on the political question, and spreading to the economic realm. Graduates of Bnei Akiva and their rabbis have decided that the world is headed towards America, and have gladly adopted the economic principles of neo-Liberalism – the principles based on which Bnei Akiva was built were thrown into the garbage heap of history.

It is with incredulity that I reflect on the world I grew up in. I see that most of the religious-Zionist public is in a reasonable economic state, and sometimes even better. The outcry of the broader public regarding how national decisions are made has not yet penetrated its heart.

Religious people talk to me about the parasites that get a free ride on National Insurance. They talk about the “kvetchy” and “spoiled” people involved in the protest; they describe last summer’s tremendous outcry of as if it were the unfolding of some plot of the New Israel Fund; as if the entire goal of the public debate regarding the endless injustices taking place here is to vanquish the religious-Zionist population and to remove it from the communities it built in Judea and Samaria; religious people quote the spokespeople of the national economic policy who support privatization even in its most unleashed and illogical forms, as if these were teachings of the Torah giants of yore. They could not care less about the horrific budget cuts in this country in all areas of the welfare system. In general, the topics of national policy that are not directly related to the religious population and its limited agenda are of no interest to them. The religious ghetto and its future are still perceived as a central issue. It is this they seek to preserve, and on its behalf that they struggle.

It is with incredulity that I reflect on the world I grew up in. I see that most of the religious-Zionist public is in a reasonable economic state, and sometimes even better. The outcry of the broader public regarding how national decisions are made has not yet penetrated its heart.

How could this be? How were the modest young people of the religious-Zionist youth movement transformed into a population that bases its economic values on the worst Calvinist ideas? What about the forgotten Jewish idea of “love your neighbor as yourself?” Why do they relate to all of the mitzvoth stipulated in the Torah that pertain to economics as passé? Why do invest extra energies into embellishing their kashrut observance, and not in upholding the rights laborers? Is there not a complete distortion of Torah here, an utterance of the word “Torah” in vain?

Despite the Moral Deterioriation

And yet, despite the abominable moral deterioration plaguing the State of Israel of which the religious population is part, I still love Bnei Akiva. I love Bnei Akiva despite the fact that my daughter’s counselor forbade her from participating in her troop’s singing event, on the grounds that she had asked one of the rabbi consultants used these days, and he told her that it is forbidden. I love Bnei Akiva, although the training for the counselors is held in separate forums for boys and girls. I love Bnei Akiva, despite that they do not address the government’s economic policy and glaringly and appallingly ignore an enormous portion of the ideas underlying this movement, the first that knew how to combine the Jewish and the Zionist worlds. I love Bnei Akiva, just as I love every Zionist youth movement that is devoted to the national future, and carries in its heart the torch of Jewish freedom whose mark is justice and compassion, mutual responsibility and truth.

I love Bnei Akiva, because I know that the lie will not prevail indefinitely. One day, the Torah will be released from its captivity, and will once again become the pillar of fire that goes before the camp. The bearers of Torah will be the chief spokespeople for justice and compassion, and for honesty and fairness in the public system, and not only for individual human relationships, which it continues to champion, as if the public system were separate from it.

The State of Israel is the state envisioned by our prophets thousands of years ago. As such, it cannot ignore its historical destiny: to establish a society based on foundations of justice.

Bambi Sheleg is the editor of the Eretz Acheret magazine

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