GOP Candidates Wear the Jewish Kippah

by James M. Wall

On the 38th anniversary of the death of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, the usual memorial event was held on December 1, at Ben Gurion’s graveside in Sdeh Boker, the Negev desert village where he lived during his retirement years.

Uri Avnery wrote in his Gush Shalom column, that Israeli newspapers published a picture of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s current Prime Minister, speaking “under a big photo of the late leader gazing thoughtfully into the distance”.

Avnery noticed a small detail in the picture. Avowed atheist Netanyahu was wearing the traditional Orthodox head-covering of respect, a kippah, a head covering that reminds the wearer that he is always “under” Yahweh.

This surprised Avnery, the “grand old man” of Israel’s largely secular peace camp, who wonders, why was Netanyahu wearing a kippah?

Ben-Gurion (pictured above) was not religious. He was a convinced atheist. He refused to wear a kippah even at funerals. Avnery acknowledged that even though he is also a complete atheist he will sometimes, out of consideration for the feelings of others, wear a kippah at funerals.

Male believers wear a kippah, according to Jewish tradition, as a sign of respect for God.  Atheistic Jews do not wear the kippah not because they disrespect God; they just don’t believe in Yahweh. Specifically:

Wearing of a head covering (yarmulka, skullcaps, kippah [pl. kippot]) for men was only instituted in Talmudic times (approximately the second century CE). The first mention of it is in Tractate Shabbat, which discusses respect and fear of God.

Some sources likened it to the High Priest who wore a hat (Mitznefet) to remind him something was always between him and God.

But why was Netanyahu, also a secular atheist, remembering Ben Gurion by appearing in public wearing a kippah?

The place was not a synagogue, nor even a cemetery. So why for God’s sake (sorry) did the man put this black kippah on his head?

Not wearing a kippah is a statement of belief in Zionism, which was created initially as a revolt against Jewish Orthodoxy. The first Zionists were not religious; they were hardline socialist secularists.

Today, almost four decades after Ben Gurion’s death, in one of those major unintended consequences of history, the state of Israel is currently governed by a political coalition which relies heavily on the political power of Jewish Orthodox believers.

For Avnery, Netanyahu’s kippah is a sign of what Avnery calls “the re-Judaization of Israel”. The Israel that Ben Gurion helped establish as a secular state, has found political value in returning to religious Orthodoxy signs of belief.

The wily politician, Netanyahu has played the religion card. US political candidates, who are his staunch political allies, have dutifully followed his lead.

Ben Gurion did not anticipate this. He believed that the new state, located as a small minority in the midst of inhospitable community of Muslim states, could only survive as an ever-expanding modern, secular and militarily strong nation.

The irony of Ben Gurion’s vision of a modern Israel is that the Orthodox Jewish religion which he had rejected and which he thought would soon end as a religious force, has now become a major player in Israel’s governance.

Avnery explains this irony:

People of my age can remember the situation. Ben-Gurion, like all of us, believed that the Jewish religion was about to die out. Some old people, who spoke Yiddish, were still praying in the synagogues, but with time they would disappear. We, the young new Israelis, were secular, modern, free from these old superstitions.

Not in his darkest nightmares (or daymares) could Ben-Gurion have imagined a time when religious pupils, some of whom are not taught in their schools even the most basic modern skills, would amount to nearly half the Israeli Jewish school population.

Or that the number of religious shirkers now deprives the army of several divisions. [Orthodox men do not serve in the army, one of several concessions Ben Gurion granted Orthodox leaders in return for their political support.]

Step by step, the religious community is taking over the state. The religious settlers, the religious anti-Arab pogromists, their allies and ultra-right collaborators are gaining new footholds by the day.

Just now the army has announced that 40% of candidates for junior officers’ courses are wearing kippahs. In 1948, when our army came into being, I did not see a single kippah-wearing soldier, not to mention an officer.

In a second irony, male candidates in the US 2012 presidential race, will bring their more “militaristic than thou” campaigns, as they wear the kippah, the sacred symbol of an ancient religion that David Ben-Gurion did not expect to survive the 20th century.

The single female still in the race, Michelle Bachman, doesn’t wear a kippah but she did tell a Jewish Forum audience this week that the first thing she did after graduation from high school, was take off on a Young Life Christian mission trip on an Israeli Kibbutz.

Commenting on this youthful eagerness to volunteer to work in Israel, American television host Jon Stewart reminded his audience that Bachman, an arch conservative, began her post-college career working for a socialist farm community.

Rick Santorum, whose chances of winning the Republican nomination are virtually zero, informed the same Forum that he came home from his visit to the Holy Land, with “one of those tiles” that called for “peace in Jerusalem”.

It remained, however, for Newt Gingrich to draw the most media attention with his flat assertion in a Jewish television program interview that “Palestinians are an invented people”. He added they were just Arabs, like their neighbors, and could have settled anywhere else but Israel.

“Invented people” and Holy Land tiles, represent the low level to which the discussion of Middle East foreign policy has descended in the 2012 Republican caucus and primary races.

This is not weighty material, but, sad to recall, in US presidential races, voters want a savior, not a professor. Gingrich, who has been a professor in his pre-political life, knows this.

He should also have known, but may not care, that Shlomo Sand’s study of Jewish historiography,  The Invention of the Jewish People is currently under discussion in Middle East academic circles.

Sand, who is Jewish, and a professor of history at Tel Aviv University, has upset believers in the conventional history of the Jewish people with his assertion that Israeli Jews as well as those Jews who are citizens of other states do not descend from the people who inhabited the Kingdom of Judea during the First and Second Temple period.

Gingrich need not have cited Sands in his interview, but either he or a staffer should have been aware that the term “invention” hardly fits Palestinian Arabs whose ancestors have lived in the region for centuries.

A former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Gingrich believes himself to have debating skills.

He has promised that when he wins (not if) the Republican nomination, he will challenge President Obama to seven, three-hour Lincoln-Douglas mano a mano, debates, no interviewers allowed.

In such debates, Professor Gingrich would be more likely to play the role of the red meat politician than the academic smoothie. He would play the same political tune that has resounded  in previous GOP-Tea Party attacks on President Obama.

Uri Avnery likes to employ metaphors in his columns.  In looking at the Netanyahu kippah-wearing appearance at Sdeh Boker,  Avnery concludes that for centuries Jews have played the role of the gazelle, escaping danger by running away at the first hint of trouble.

With their new state, the Jews decided to turn themselves into lions, or as Avnery put it, “Zionism wanted to turn the gazelle into a lion. It said: no more running away. When in danger, we stand and we fight”.

As a result, Avnery, the peace warrior, laments:

And, as seems to be human nature, we overcompensate for the past. We have become aggressive, militaristic, even brutal. The oppressed have become oppressors. Jews used to say: “If force does not work, try using your brain.” Israelis say “if force does not work, try using more force.” (I confess that I coined this phrase many years ago as a joke. Alas, a joke no more.)

Avnery also concludes that:

Netanyahu has invented (or adopted) a peculiar style of ruling: governing by playing on people’s fears.  Since coming back to power, he has been treating us to an endless series of fears. Fear mongering is the order of the day – every day.

Sound familiar?  The Netanyahu politics of fear prevails today in Tel Avi and in Washington. Money is raised for campaigns because of fear. Voters are promised a future without fear by politicians who run campaigns on fear.

Fear unites, but it also destroys, as our recent fear-driven wars will attest.

Will the American public wake up to this fact or will they vote their fears in 2012? We have less than a year to find out.

This will be the final Wall Writings posting for 2011. But I promise to return, after a brief hiatus, with a new posting in early January, 2012. Don’t go away. 

About James Wall

James M. Wall is currently a Contributing Editor of The Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, Illinois. From 1972 through 1999, he was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine. Jim launched this new personal blog April 24, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years.
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10 Responses to GOP Candidates Wear the Jewish Kippah

  1. Patricia Pynchon says:

    Thanks for this interesting piece. Israel seems not to have a consistent identity, it is not sure of its values, merely brutal to the Palestinians it pushed off the land in criminal fashion before any treaty was finalized. I hope Israel’s actions don’t lead to a world war. The U.S. has got itself in a fix by ignoring Israel’s crimes.

  2. Very engaging, my friend.
    And in light of the discussion by the six Republican candidates in the ABC “debate” tonight, ALL of the candidates join in know-nothing Israeli-pandering. ALL are bowing to the Tail that wags the Dog. How sickening is it? And then to keep talking about “the truth”. Ugh. Vomit comes to mind. Puking seems in order.
    Israeli religious extremism joined with US religious extremism is a recipe for disaster. Each one of the candidates should have been wearing a kippa.
    There is no recognition of Palestinian “truth”; only the Israeli hasbara, the Israeli narrative of 1948 victory of the underdog. Erase the natives who don’t exist anyway and crave invention. Trash to be dumped in the dusty bin of history, having failed to buckle under the tank, the gun and the missile.
    Israel has got a real problem. The US is enabling the oppressive occupation of other people’s land. The assumption by ALL the candidates, is that Israel has a right to (all of) the land. What? What does the UN say about that? O, the UN doesn’t count for anything? So say the Israelis. And so say these candidates, each one. Perhaps except for Rand Paul, who implies that the Isr/Pals need to “fight it out between them” as though we have been innocent bystanders all these years. Ugh. What nonsense is this?
    Electing one of these people will only compound their and our problems. There were so many distortions (Perry calling the recent changes in Egypt as “Islamists coming to power”. What?) and half truths, and unspoken truth. Each was trying to outdo the other is showing deference to Israel, who is calling the shots in the US ME policies. Enough. JRK

  3. Samia Khoury says:

    What else can be said Jim. Avnery’s article and your comments say it all. Resorting to fear is one more devious way that the Israeli government resorts to so as to deviate attention from the core issue, but once again the young people of the USA, and their allies will be victim should the American administration fall in the trap and support a war for fear of nuclear weapons. It will indeed be disastrous especially that Israel is the only country in the region that owns nuclear weapons.

  4. Awad Paul Sifri says:

    Thanks for the very interesting points you raised in your article, particularly Newt Gingrich’s outrageous disinformational reference to the “invention” of the Palestinians. I’d like to make the following points:

    - The Holy Land was geographically referred to as Palestine, as far back as the Roman rule, when Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem. “Palestine” also refers to the Philistines who, along with the Canaanites, were the first two people who inhabited the land.

    - The modern-day Palestinian people are descended from all the ancient people who lived in the Holy Land, since the beginning of history when it was called Canaan. These included the Canaanites, Philistines, Amorites, Gergashites, and some others.

    - While it changed names for brief periods, as it was invaded by different conquerors throughout the centuries, the anscestors of the Palestinians were never enslaved or carried away into captivity. They stayed put on their lands, regardless of rulers, or invaders.
    By comparison, the Hebrews were exiled to Babylon (Iraq and Persia of today).

    - Ever since the Arab Empire in the 7th Century, Palestinians adopted the Arabic language and the majority converted to Islam. A significant minority remained as Christians and were, in fact, descended from the first believers in Jesus Christ.

    - Under the Ottoman rule, the region was still referred to geographically as, “Palestine”, but it was more common for the Ottomans to divide up the entire Middle East region by districts/governerates and key cities.

    - By contrast, the European Zionist parties are the ones to “invent” a brand name, “Israel”, and to “invent’ a people composed of different nationalities, ethnicities, races, but united by one religion.

    - There are many key countries around the world whose names were invented, such as, the United kingdom, Australia, Brazil, Germany, Italy, the USA, and scores of countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
    But, few can claim to have inhabited their respective countries, since the beginning of recorded history, as in the case of the Palestinians.

  5. Pauline Coffman says:

    I’m so glad you caught the irony of Gingrich using “Palestinians are an invented people” and connected it to the Shlomo Sand book, The Invention of the Jewish People. And he calls himself a historian! Sand is widely read in Israel and should be read by all who are concerned about this conflict.

    I’ve spent the week with Palestinian Christians who trace their ancestry back many generations in this land. In Bethlehem, the residents watch the strangulation of their city happening on all sides as land is taken, the wall is built, and checkpoints get more and more demeaning. Yet they have pledged to resist non-violently.

    Thank you, Jim!

  6. Fred says:

    It’s pretty clear now that the religious Jews of Israel, the ones that wear the Kippah, are the main component of the very right wing settler groups, which routinely, burn Palestinian olive groves, torch Mosques, steal non Jewish land, and keep non Jews on segregated sidewalks in Hebron. If they waer their kippahs to remind them that they’re close to God, do they believe their God is a racist, bigot, who calls on them to commit crimes?

    There is a long history of religious groups taking the lead in intolerance and cruelty towards those who are not like them, and this is clearly another example. Where are the religious Jews in Israel that stand for justice and equal rights under the law? It is a handful the secular Jews in Israel that are fighting for these universal principles, and the kippah wearing, settler Jews that are carrying out the brutal acts against Palestinians, simply because they are not Jewish, This should be unacceptable to all people of conscience, and it our government had a conscience, and some courage, it would be unacceptable to them too. All people of conscience have is BDS, against Israel, until it ends it’s racist polices towards non Jews.

  7. John Kane says:

    Jim, thanks (among many things) for continually transmitting Avnery’s comments to the rest of us. As you say, he’s one of the most important voices on Israel/Palestine — as are you.
    That said, one brief comment on the polarization (in Isreal and here) between secular atheists like Avnery and so-called “orthodox” religious folks. To be sure, many atheists and casual believers are happy to “wear the kippah” when politically convenient, yet the deeper problem both here in the US and in Israel is that the many good secular folks (like Avnery?) have too little to say in response to the “orthodox” about the deeper (religious) grounding of justice and peace. The missing voice, here and there, is a strong and confident liberal religiousness — strong BOTH in claiming continually that the so-called “orthodox” (whether Jews, Christians, or Muslims) are a new and quite phony phenomenon — deeply out of touch with their own best traditions and mainly concocted for violent political purposes — AND in claiming a religious middle ground for justice and peace that can appropriate and collaborate with the best insights and policies of secular liberals while cutting out the ground from the looney religious right.

  8. Virginia Gambill says:

    Having visited this land many times and seen first hand the cruelly oppressive practices of the IDF and Israeli government, I only wish the American average Joe could know the truth!!! Our own government panders to Israel’s desires for more money and public support. While a whole “nation” of Arab Christians and Muslims languish under the harsh occupation of the “newcomers”, we look the other way. The settlers are the main problem here. They are granted complete freedom to continue illegal land grabbing, murdering Palestinian children and priests, all the while destroying olive groves and killing livestock. I only hope someone, somehow wakes up before it is too late. The recent sword rattling by the Israeli’s toward Iran can bring nothing but more death and destruction. Virginia Gambill

  9. Bill Gepford says:

    Well said, Jim! Unfortunately, this has turned politics into the worst I have seen in 65 years. Having lived in the Middle East for ten years, and made a number of trips back since 1963, I see only more death and destruction if the 2012 political campaign are any indication. It appears that only the most hypocritical will win the Republican nomination. What was it Gingrich said: “all we need to do is tell the truth.” If he gets elected, he is gong to have a hard time finding enough of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” to cover his own lies. And the situation in Iran will be only the tip of ice berg.

  10. chuckster21 says:

    Great read, and I can’t agree more!

    Best Kippah

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