Can Secularism Survive?

Sons are the provision of Hashem; the fruit of the womb, His reward.




(the israel bible)

February 20, 2023

4 min read

The famed Zionist Hillel Halkin recently lamented the State of Israel’s future. Halkin recognizes that “It’s not the end of Israeli democracy.” Israel’s citizens have voted and will continue doing so. The change that scares him is the “steady drift toward religion in Israeli life in recent decades” instead of the liberal, secular Zionist entity that it had been for its first 75 years. And yes, for the first time, more than half of the governing coalition Knesset members are Orthodox. Halkin believes that this change is here to stay because the Orthodox “have the demographic winds at their backs.” The changes in Israel actually highlight the fatal flaw of a secularist worldview.

Of course, Israel has unique circumstances like the failure of the peace-process left and the success of the economic right, as Halkin explains. But it makes assumptions about what should have been expected. Is national character fixed regardless of events or does it continually change based on the cultural winds that blow its way? Halkin evidently thinks that had the secular left rejected a peace process with fake partners and recognized the virtues of capitalism, then the current government would be oriented around a secular vision of Zionism.

But is national identity that fickle? Should it dramatically shift based on the success or failure of various efforts? All nations have their ups and downs and will be infiltrated by outside cultural forces. Can they maintain their uniqueness through it or not?

Halkin does not address national perpetuation because he assumes that nations follow Newton’s first law of motion: “An object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion remains in motion at constant speed and in a straight line unless acted on by an unbalanced force.”

But nations are not objects at rest or on a trajectory. They are dynamic, because people are always acting and people despise boredom. Democracy amplifies this process since politicians are always promising something new and better. One generation with its life experiences passes away and a new generation is born ignorant of the past and excited to create its own future.

We should look at the transition from secular Zionism to a more religious Zionism through this lens. National perpetuation requires both a robust birthrate and an educational program about its traditions and ideals. Without these, the nation will either physically wither or change its character. In both, Halkin’s secular Zionism, and liberalism in general, lack the requisite material to propel it forward.

Birthrate: Israel, including secular Israeli women, has the highest birthrate of any Western country. But this is not enough since Orthodox reproduction rates are over 6.5 children per woman. Since Religious Israelis are still a minority, a straightforward proposal would have secular Israelis compete demographically. But of course, Halkin sees this as impossible; secular Israeli families do not want to have six children. Religion directs people as to how much pleasure they should have in the present and how much they should sacrifice for a future that they will not get to see, which increases procreation. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, many secular Jews felt the need to repopulate, but with Israeli Jewry standing at 7 million, that urge no longer exists. Secular Zionism, like the larger liberal worldview, lacks a procreating principle.

Education: Even having a growing population, however, is not enough. Each new generation can mislead themselves and believe that the present reality is the default. When that suddenly changes, they are susceptible to changing their national identity. National success, failure, and cultural infiltrations are all too common in history.

Rather, continuing a movement successfully requires having an understanding of its past that directs the future. Psychologist Erik Erikson’s concept of ego-identity is “the ability to experience one’s self as something that has continuity and sameness, and to act accordingly” (emphasis mine). For a national identity, this requires a narrative that the individual makes into their own story. The Passover Seder states that “each participant must see themselves as having been redeemed from Egypt.” The Exodus story must become each person’s story.

This type of identity can authentically carry a group through when “social forces, among others, prevail and displace the group’s center of gravity,” as sociologist Maurice Halbwachs describes. He explains that “in order for this center to remain in equilibrium, readaptation is required… [and] Society must persuade its members that they already carry these beliefs within themselves at least partially” This framework allows a nation to adapt and mature over time aligned with its original intent. We cannot live in the past, but we can bring the past into the present.

This gets us to the crux of the issue. With the State of Israel’s creation in 1948, Biblical prophecies of future redemption began ringing true again. Israel’s religious communities had no choice but to see their past alive in the present. The religious Zionist community had their narrative and their identity.

But secular Zionists discarded that past. In Halkin’s words, “Zionism aspired to wean the Jewish people off the belief that God was on its side and could be relied on to rescue it from its predicaments—that it should rely on God rather than on itself because it was God’s chosen.” This is the anti-narrative. What Jewish identity does it propel forward?

And this is the lethal flaw of liberalism. It is a philosophy that places too much emphasis on the individual in the present. It cannot endure from generation to generation. It frees from the past without obligating towards the future.

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