My morning routine usually takes me to Foreign Policy, whose online magazine’s phenomenal sampling of analysis and expert opinion keeps my World editor gears moving. Like any student of international affairs, I have taught myself to read these selections dispassionately—reserving special caution for the issues I expect to set me off. But on rare occasion, my brakes fail.
Today, I awoke to a punch in the gut. Somewhere in the middle of Joshua Keating’s commentary on a recent University of Chicago sociology study on atheism and religiosity around the world, a disturbing revelation written off as a footnote: “Israel saw the largest increase in belief in God (23 percent)”. To most readers, there is nothing particularly incongruous about thinking of Israel and God in the same breath: after all, Israel is the Jewish state, its capital city is a focal point of three religions, and its Iron Age name is literally suffixed with divinity (El, the Canaanite-Hebrew word whose Arabic synonym is Allah).
I have always had to explain to schoolmates: “No, not everyone in Israel walks around in black hats. In fact, it’s one of the most atheistic countries out there!” Watching the American religious right tout a fanatical, shallow love of a biblicized Israel, I have long wanted to show Glenn Beck and Michele Bachmann on a tour of the robust Euro-debauchery that gives Tel Aviv its charm. Despite Israel’s immutable significance in religious imagination and its lack of separation between church and state, the revived Jewish society has always been fundamentally secular at its cultural and political core.
As the years go by, it looks increasingly as though I’ll have to revise my story. Keating mistakenly explains Israel’s religious revival as the result of an “influx of ultra-Orthodox Jews”. If he has the right definition of influx, this explanation is patently false—most recent immigrants to Israel are secular types from the former Soviet Union. Neither can it be explained in terms of the contemporary American religious narrative—unlike the individualistic ‘born-again’ movement some might imagine, it’s exceedingly rare to hear of secular Tel Aviv hipsters leaving the clubs for a life of pietistic self-denial in nearby Bnei Brak.
Rather, Israel is growing more religious as a result of the state-subsidized mass breeding of a once-tiny, now-burgeoning ultra-Orthodox community. It’s no secret that the Jewish state has been bucking global trends in reproduction: because of pro-natalist campaigns to maintain Israel’s demographic heft, the country’s fertility rate of 2.96 children per woman far outstrips all of its socioeconomic peers. And although the secular Jewish elite has ventured forth in search of a reproductive holy grail—a higher secular Jewish birthrate—the greatest gains have been accrued to the ultra-Orthodox community.
Since Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion struck a detail on the eve of Israel’s independence with what he saw as a dying religious minority—allowing them exemptions from army service, a separate state-funded school system, and trappings of theocracy in the civil state in exchange for their acceptance of Zionism—the numerical strength and political clout of the ultra-Orthodox community has taken off. But as I’ve written before, we’d be deeply mistaken to think of ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel as comparable at all to religious traditionalism in the United States. Judaism, whose legal-ritualistic framework bears little similarity to the faith-based creeds of Protestantism, cannot be enjoyed primarily as an individual experience; in Israel, your level of religiosity is almost inextricable from your social identity, neighborhood of residence, and political alignment.
So when Tom Smith’s study, “Beliefs about God across Time and Countries”, shows young Israelis to be far less atheistic and more certain about God’s existence than old Israelis—at variance with the trend in Ireland, Chile, the United States, Russia, and almost every other country—the numbers do not depict some sort of evangelical revival of Orthodox Judaism among the masses. Rather, they are the product of differential birth rates, with the seculars at the heart of Israel’s art, poetry, and political thought falling behind. Although old Israelis are far less religious than old Americans, young Israelis (a staggering proportion of them from the ultra-Orthodox community) have begun to overtake young Americans in their devotion to a higher power. To what I can only imagine would be the deep dismay of Herzl, Bialik, and Ben-Gurion, Israel is now one of the few most devout countries in the OECD.
If you are expecting a rapture any time soon, this is cause to be heartened. But the Smith numbers should be sounding alarms for Israeli policymakers and secular advocates of Israeli culture. For one, they signal an age in which a growing proportion of the population elects not to teach its children about democratic values, global engagement, gainful employment, and secular science—in other words, the transformation of Israel into what Israelis accuse its neighbors of being.
More tangibly, they tell a story already well-known to political economists: while one sector of Israeli society is contributing vigorously to the global exchange of capital and ideas, another, reliant on the dole, is wallowing in some of the First World’s worst developmental conditions. As the two separate societies become set in their respective cultural ways and comfortable with their respective economic situations, the prospects for reconciliation continue on a trend to oblivion.
But I won’t refrain from value judgments: it is the rise of religious fanaticism in Israel that poses the greatest threat to the country’s future. In such a contested space as the biblically-based Land of Israel, growing certainty in the existence of a personal god who is concerned with human affairs justifies self-defeating, morally problematic ideas about West Bank settlement expansion and the peace process in general. As the religious ranks have swollen, the level of access these delusional ideas have to policymaking channels has only increased.
Luckily, brave voices of liberal Zionism like Gershom Gorenberg and Peter Beinart have set out on a polemical campaign to warn the Jewish community of Israel’s policy mistakes before the dream of a lasting Jewish democracy à la Herzl becomes untenable. However, they fail in offering too narrow a diagnosis of Israel’s problems. Yes, the inability to achieve peace with the Palestinians represents a fundamental threat to Israel’s existence. But equally damning, independent of threats to state coffers or the peace process, is the rising religious tide in Israel—something to which Gorenberg and Beinart, both self-identified Orthodox liberal Zionists, are reconciled in some form.
All else aside, somebody needs to speak up for the secular Hebrew culture that produced the Haganah and parliamentary democracy, Tchernichovsky’s sonnets and Amichai’s love poems, Tel Aviv’s symphony orchestra and gay pride parades, the Weizmann Institute and Hebrew University. A growing proportion of Israelis, sadly, would prefer to go without all these Hellenistic trappings, travel back two thousand years, and give alleged assimilationists like us a hard drubbing. But as Jonathan Haidt reminds us, we seculars are generally terrible at arguing our message: we are less sure of ourselves, less group-oriented, and less inclined to hyperbole than our religious brethren. Something has to give.
Yair Lapid’s entry into politics on the platform of an end to religious privilege is a step in the right direction. If Binyamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz can muster the support to overturn the Tal Law, there is some hope for a national conversation on the proper place of religion in Israeli public life. But above all, Israel’s waning secular majority needs the support of liberals, secularists, and Zionists around the world—lest they lose the soul of the country they struggled to build. The stakes are far greater than the difference between belief and disbelief in the existence of God.