[This post was written for the Diyun blog’s series of installments on gap year experiences]
In Hebrew the word for secular, חילוני, shares the root of the word חלון, or window. In Israel, to be secular is to open the window of the house of Jewish tradition and step outside – into the world of Western philosophy, politics, literary criticism, and sociology. It implies that those who choose to keep the window closed live in a sealed-off space – a structure isolated from the intellectual and technological changes in the outside world. For the religious, remaining obligated to tradition and mitzvoth is an act of self-preservation. The closed house not only separates; it protects. But for the secular, the shuttered house is a mark of ignorant parochialism.
In the American Jewish community the house is said to contain a spectrum of Jewish observance, from nominally-practicing to ultra-orthodox and everything in between. The word secular is rarely ever used, with Jewish sociologists preferring to use terms like “unaffiliated”, “unengaged”, or “just Jewish” to describe American Jews who may be on their way to the exit through the open window. The structure of the house marks the boundaries of the Jewish community, though its religious boundaries are different than its political ones. Outside of the house is secular society, colored by largely Christian or nationalistic municipal holidays. There is no secular Jewish, cultural space – no Jewish institution that does not relate to Judaism.
The secular public in Israel can afford to scorn ritual and deny all connection to the tradition because the state, in all its institutions, protects the link between the public sphere and the religious sphere. It often does so at the expense of ethnic and religious minorities, Jewish and non-Jewish, that do not fit into the state-sponsored historical-religious narrative. The narrative forms the basis of culture, language, and secular space. “Every national cultural,” writes historian Shlomo Sand, “always has a pre-modern background, religious or secular.” Israeli secularism can only be characterized as Jewish in the sense that American secularism can be characterized as Christian – a statement that makes many American Jews, as members of a minority, deeply uncomfortable.
Being an American Jew in Israel places me in a strange position. I have the right tools – language, religion, and skin color – to integrate into the hegemonic Israeli secular culture. But it isn’t my culture. My awareness of the uncomfortable tensions – between secular and religious, Israel and the diaspora – have marked my year living, learning, and teaching in South Tel Aviv. I came to Israel with my Zionism in doubt – I saw this year as my last attempt to wrangle with my political and ethical problems with Israel. I am leaving with my Judaism in doubt – after a year in an entirely secular mechina (pre-army program for Israelis) my perspective on Jewish life has changed dramatically.
This year I found myself part of an “אנחנו,” a “we,” that I had never been a part of before. My friends went to the beach on Rosh Hashanah, ate cookies on Yom Kippur, and spent Shabbat in Tel Aviv’s world-renowned clubs. And while I tried to avoid compromising my own religious practices, I also tried not to isolate myself from the members of my commune and the other students in the mechina. I quickly recognized that I wasn’t among Jews who simply decided not to keep mitzvoth; they didn’t really know what they were. My friends were coming from a culture completely different from my own. They were Israelis first, and Jews second, if at all. They hadn’t opened the window and exited from the house of our shared tradition. Most weren’t born inside of it in the first place. Some even wanted to burn it down.
The mechina I attended was infused with a sense of obligation to social activism. While we learned classic Zionist texts and read pages from the Gemara, we focused mostly on Israel’s myriad social problems – systematic discrimination against mizrachim, codified racism against Palestinian citizens, gaping inequality between the rich and the poor, abuse and neglect of refugees and migrant workers, and the ongoing and ever-deepening occupation in the West Bank. While spiritual life stagnated – we spoke very little about ritual, religion, or (god forbid) belief – activist life blossomed – we attended demonstrations together, debated fiercely about democracy and socialism, met with Knesset ministers and social activists, and volunteered intensively in the neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv. Israel ceased to be a country that had special meaning – a place imbued with spiritual or religious value. It became just another country – one with terrible corruption, horrific injustices, and painful inequality.
My rhetoric switched as I embraced the Israeli “אנחנו” of the members of my commune. I denounced the government, lamented the failure of the Left, and hoped for the return of the social protests. I related to Israel the way I related to the U.S. – with fierce dissent and even anger. In Israel I exited the house of tradition and stepped outside into truly secular space.
Three weeks before my return to the United States, I am faced with a problem. The American Jewish house of tradition I once thought of as my home has been painted in blue and white, and an Israeli flag hung outside the front door. It has become a fortress, with a security desk to block out dissent, a special detector against de-legitimization, and an armed guard outside to scare off any perceived anti-Semitism. As if to insulate itself from its fading connection to the hegemonic secular culture of Israel, the American Jewish community has embraced a policy of unwavering support. To buttress the myth that there remains a language and culture shared by Jews all around the world the American Jewish community justifies Israel’s military actions and discriminatory policies, which have increasingly come under fire from human rights groups and the international community.
Ironically my opposition to Israeli policies, which I learned from Israelis while in Israel, does not adhere to the strict boundaries of discourse about Israel in the United States. While Israeli academics freely write essays about the feasibility of the one-state solution in mainstream daily papers, publishing similar texts in the American Jewish press would be considered incitement. I expected my attempt to integrate into the Israeli setting of the mechina would bind me closer to my Jewish heritage and tradition. Instead, it has placed me off the gradient of acceptability.
I fear that when I return to the U.S. I will not be able to get inside the big, blue and white house. I worry that I’ll get stopped at the security desk, unable to enter because I protested too much. I’m anxious the special detector will beep when I walk through, and point to what I’ve written as de-legitimization. Or worst of all, I fret that the burly security guard at the front door will check my book-bag and turn me away for anti-Semitism. And then I’ll be left outside of Fortress Jewry, unable to do anything other than look in through the open window from the outside.