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From Politics to a Holy War

Recent days have seen a strange development: Political positions, ideologies and worldviews, support for the Prime Minister or opposition to him—all of them have undergone conversion, and have been transformed into religious beliefs. The long-established ultra-Orthodox parties, who cling fiercely to their faith, are now being joined by those who are clinging no less fiercely to their secularism; those who are fierce in their detestation of Netanyahu, and even those who fiercely believe that COVID-19 is just “flu with good PR.” As a result, the political debate in Israel has taken on the character of a holy war among religions. Religion has positive aspects, but religious wars are always bloody. If the conflicts that are tearing Israeli society apart, take on the character of a war of religion, the odds of a total breakdown will be higher, and the hope of mending the divides will fade into the distance. Political ideas and values are important for every individual and group. But turning every disagreement into a religious conflict is both unnecessary and dangerous.

The most significant difference between religious faith and identification with a political cause is that a political position can react to events and undergo change. But religious belief is “immune” to the outside world. A Jew will continue to believe in the Six Days of Creation no matter how much evidence piles up as to evolution; a Christian will continue to see Jesus as the Son of God, even if scientists prove that he was conceived like every mortal; and so on. By contrast, political positions claim to be backed up by values and ethics, but at the same time—aspire to be realistic, and to work to improve the world while taking the facts and a changing reality into account.

Religion has always been part and parcel of Israeli politics, but its representatives were usually guided by considerations of realpolitik. The same was true of Israeli politics in general. Parties came and went, leaders rose and fell, and their supporters worked through their disappointment and moved on to the next leader. Of course, passion was never lacking. But for the most part, reason prevailed. There was a closer linkage between the reality and the facts, and the political discourse. 

Not any more. In recent years, and with even greater intensity when coming up against the coronavirus pandemic in the last few months, Israeli politics has turned religious. On the right and on the left, entire sectors of the population have adopted an all-encompassing quasi-religious narrative to which they adhere with single-minded intensity. Like pious believers, theirs is a black-and-white world, a picture with no shades of grey, no complexity, and no fine gradations. After formulating their articles of faith, they stick to them with religious fervor and refuse to be swayed by the facts or by a changing reality. They behave like the faithful not only with regard to their beliefs, but also with regard to others. After a religious sect has emerged and formulated its credo, its members divide the world into believers and infidels. Those who are willing to accept the credo in full will be granted a seat of honor in the front row of the sanctuary. Those who deviate however slightly from their world view, will be put to shame in the town square. 

What new sects are we talking about? The most prominent new entries on the “religious map” are the two camps: “Only Bibi” vs. “Anyone but Bibi”. Both camps view reality through the narrow prism of their adulation or their loathing of Netanyahu, and credit or blame him for all of the country’s successes and ills. 

Not far behind them are those who support or lambaste the law-enforcement system. Here too, neither side is willing to acknowledge the complexity of the situation or wrestle with the facts. The coronavirus has spawned a new type of sect, whose members deny the reality of the pandemic and will continue to do so even when, heaven forbid, the streets are full of corpses. 

Nor can we leave out the adherents of the long-established “sects”: the Sect of “Liberalism”, whose members stifle any view that deviates from their credo; the Sect of “Peace Now”, which, no matter how many Arab countries make peace with Israel, will not give up the mantra of “territory for peace”; the Sect of “Greater Israel”; and all the others.

An individual with no worldview and no faith is needy in spirit and is significantly constrained in his or her ability to enhance our society and our state. A society made up of such individuals cannot survive for long. But a society in which every political idea evolves into a quasi-religious dogma and every group – into a sect, is no less dangerous. Instead of engaging in political struggles to make our world better, we are rapidly plummeting into a holy war that will run us into the ground.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post.