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.