Theodor Herzl is recognized as the father of the state of Israel, which is why practically every city across the country has a Herzl Street. However, as he died over 40 years before the establishment of the state of Israel, Herzl’s philosophy did not frame the Jewish nation’s ethos.
Herzl was not religious, nor was he raised in an observant household. However, he had a strong Jewish soul and unshakable faith, and believed that Zionism was part and parcel of Judaism. This belief can be seen in Herzl’s writings and speeches, which are peppered with references about the divine hand guiding the Zionist movement. For example, when Herzl established the first Zionist Congress in 1897, the program was launched with the “shehecheyanu” blessing, thanking God for bringing the Jewish people to that auspicious moment, and Herzl stated twice at the congress that Zionism would never be used to hurt religious practices.
However, the early settlers who arrived as part of the Second Aliyah (1904-1914) had a vastly different vision of Zionism. Although representing a small percentage of the Zionist Congress delegates, this powerful group of staunchly secular Jews, with David Ben-Gurion at the helm, led the Jewish population for over 50 years, from the British Mandate period through the first decades of the state of Israel. During this time period, they shaped the fledgling Zionist movement in a secular image.
In recent years, a gradual shift has occurred towards the observant majority—including the ultra-Orthodox, national-religious and traditional—that is approximately 60% of Israel’s Jewish population. Israel’s embrace of religion is reflected in both the public realm, where there has been a political shift from the secular minority to the observant majority, and in the private realm, where secular Israelis are exploring their Jewish roots.
As opposed to the past, where religious practice was perceived as an all-or-nothing proposition, today, Israelis can experience religious practices on their own terms, without feeling obligated to fully accept religion. Furthermore, because religion is presented in a noncoercive manner, many secular Jews have embraced the opportunity to learn about their heritage. Consequently, it is not uncommon for secular Jews to attend Shabbat services; similarly, secular Jews are visiting the Western Wall in record numbers.
Between the observant community’s appealing ideology, the ultra-Orthodox culture of volunteering via vital organizations that serve the entire nation—such as United Hatzalah (emergency medical aid) and Yad Sarah (medical supplies)—and national-religious soldiers’ positions of leadership in the military, there is growing acceptance by the secular population, who have been drawn to the observant community’s values and lifestyle. Undoubtedly, strong disagreements remain, mostly with respect to the issue of ultra-Orthodox service in the Israeli military. However, Israeli society is slowly discarding old prejudices and, as a result, many people have gradually become more comfortable associating with individuals from different circles.
Religion in Israel appears to have returned to Herzl’s vision of the Jewish nation, in which he stated over 120 years ago at the first World Zionist Congress, “Zionism is the return to Judaism even before it is the return to the land of the Jews.” How exciting to witness a society where religious exploration can be pursued without apology in an environment of mutual respect. May we be inspired to continue mending the fabric of our society, which will ensure a Shana Tova for the Jewish nation.
Postscript: Gol Kalev’s writings significantly impacted this article. Mr. Kalev is a board member of the America-Israel Friendship League and chairman of its think tank. To access his writings, please visit www.europeandjerusalem.com.
By Gedaliah Borvick