In this discussion, these scholars tie Israel's shift to religiosity to a global pendulum shift away from separating religion and institutions of power and how popular entertainment and mainstream media both reflects and feeds these cultural shifts.
Eran Kaplan: Earlier this month, Israel’s Channel 2—the country’s most watched channel and newscast—featured a link to a video on its news home page of one of its most popular hosts, Sivan Rahav-Me’ir, giving a Torah lesson on the reasons why Jerusalem was destroyed nearly two millennia ago. Does this signify to you the type of social and cultural developments that you have identified in your new book?
Yaron Peleg: You are asking an interesting question, because while the personal story of journalist Sivan Rahav-Meir is not unusual—she grew up in a secular home and became religious later on in life, as an adult—the fact that she was given a mainstream national platform for "preaching" is very unusual. What we have here, I think, is an example of an increasing blurring of boundaries in Israel between the personal—religious belief—and the public—national TV. Sivan Rahav-Meir is not only a popular journalist but also a popular religious public figure. Until now, however, she separated these worlds, conducting her journalistic work while also being active in her religious community. Her Torah lesson on a popular TV channel, which has never before scheduled a religious show, is significantly different. Her televised lesson has no news value nor was she invited as a guest to speak about herself. In many ways it can be labeled "televangelism", which even in the U.S., where the genre was invented, is broadcast on dedicated television channels.
EK: Where else in Israeli culture do you see this blurring of the line between the public and private sphere?
YP: I would say that this blurring occurs most alarmingly in the military, the IDF. There is currently a culture war between the higher echelons of the IDF, who were educated during a time when the political influence of the national religious was less prominent in Israel, and the lower ranks, many of whom hail from the national religious sector in Israel. These lower ranks, especially the elite fighting units, were once populated by Labor-identified or more left oriented Israelis. These lowers ranks are where most of the higher command of the Israeli army is groomed, and eventually they will rise through the ranks to become the army's generals. When this happens, in a decade or so, the character of the Israeli army will likely change to reflect that. We saw this already in the last operation in Gaza in 2014, which was defined in religious terms by some commanders and soldiers who took part in it. A lot of media attention focused on this phenomenon during the 2014 operation.
Education is another area where this blurring occurs, especially under the influence of religious parties, which control the Ministry of Education and introduce various initiatives and textbooks that promote so-called Jewish values. I say “so-called” because many of the values that are promoted as “Jewish” in Israel today are separationist and jingoistic and seem increasingly beholden to the ancient Israelite aggression as recorded in the Hebrew Bible rather than to the more compromising Judaism of the rabbis. It is not difficult to imagine the long-term effects of these phenomena on Israeli society, whose children will be first drilled in schools and then in the army along more tribal sensibilities rather than more universal ones.
EK: When we think of a strict separation between the public and private spheres, between religion as a personal system of belief and between religion as part of the organs of government and control, we think of the Enlightenment and its legacy. The “founding fathers” of the Zionist movement saw themselves as part of that tradition. In his famous exchange with the ultra-orthodox leaders in 1947, Ben Gurion argued that the future Jewish State would never legislate laws based on religion because that would go against the spirit of the international community and the post-WWII institutions that it created. Do you sense that the phenomena that we are discussing are an indication that Israel is moving away from the principles of the Enlightenment?
YP: Yes, I do, although I would add that the abandonment of Enlightenment principles is not an exclusively Israeli trend. We see signs of it in many places around the world today, most glaringly perhaps in the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump in the U.S. In Israel, the trend seems to be taking on a religious guise and is connected to various internal shifts Israeli society is experiencing. Some of it has to do with the unraveling of Israeli society following the advent of identity politics, which essentially did away with the earlier attempts to create a unified civil society in Israel. When the common statist principles that formerly united people waned and various differences between them were accentuated—Ashkenazi/Mizrahi, Left/Right, liberal/conservative, secular/religious—the Jewish religion was recruited as a basic glue to hold together a national community. Israeli society finds it increasingly difficult to unite around what you call Enlightenment principles, the principles that created the modern state in the first place. Unfortunately, this problem seems endemic to the region in general, although until recently it was confined primarily to Arab or Muslim countries. Historians of the West usually point to the abandonment of religious principles and the reorganization of life around knowledge and reason as the beginning of modernity. In some respects, the recent changes in Israel point to a reversal of this process.
EK: Do you, then, view this process as an indication that Modern Hebrew culture has failed to develop a new, modern Israeli identity where the Jewish religion serves only as a part of its cultural heritage, part of its past, rather than as an active agent?
YP: I think it's probably too early to tell because we are in the very beginning of a process, that began only about thirty years ago and it's hard to predict the directions it will take. Since the 1980s, the relatively young and vicarious secular culture that began to be constructed by the Israeli state since its inception has been undergoing a process of deconstruction. The beginning of the process was a bit tumultuous, with the various sectors or groups that comprise Israeli Jewish society running wild with the freedoms they felt from the unwinding restraints of statism. The process was not devoid of conflicts either, with various groups vying for power and precedence over others. Those groups that were perceived as oppressors, that is, the secular and the Ashkenazi who formerly held the reins of power, came under the heaviest attacks and lost most of their former influence. The loudest voices that are currently heard in Israel are those of the Mizrahi and the national religious, whose rising sway is felt in different ways and in different parts of society. While the impact of Mizrahim is more cultural in nature, the national religious are wielding more political power and seem to be making concerted changes that will perhaps be more enduring. These two groups—the Mizrahi and the national religious—share some interests, especially those related to the Jewish religion. This means that the most dominant parts of Israeli society today are not only more tolerant of PDRs, Public Displays of Religion, but actively seek to promote them. There are good reasons to believe this trend shall continue because 1) religious sensibilities resonate with many Israelis, not just Mizrahi and the national religious, 2) because other and more powerful identifying alternatives have not been found yet, and 3) because of the peculiar nature of Jewishness, which is, after all, much more than just a religion.
However, it is worth remembering that the Jewish religion was always an active agent in Israeli identity, even when that identity was more secular in appearance. The very revolution of Zionism was staged against a traditional Judaism that was perceived to be an obstacle to Jewish normalization and acceptance, primarily in the West. Traditional Judaism was, therefore, inherent in Zionism and part and parcel of it. The 1967 War released the Jewish genie out of the Israeli bottle. One major result of it are the ideological settlers of the West Bank and formerly of Gaza, who took on the mantle of Zionist pioneering and dressed it with a yarmulke.
EK: So, bringing all these social and cultural processes into the cinematic lens, do you then see the proliferation of religious themed films in Israel as analogous to other developments in Israeli cinema, namely the growing focus on what in Israel is referred to as the periphery?
YP: I think that the growing number of religiously themed films is a more significant phenomenon from the one you mention. Films dealing with the periphery in Israel were part of Israeli cinema from the very beginning. Perhaps because there was no real center at the time, geographically speaking, in the sense of a significantly dynamic urban life; the so-called center was more ideological in nature. I would characterize that ideological center Zionism. In many ways this is a more useful reference point when we speak of Israeli cinema, which remains much more ideological than many other national cinemas even today. What I mean is that, generally speaking, Israeli films tend to focus on those themes and locations which best express the process of nation-formation that is still going on in Israel (this process has to do with financing as well, since most films in Israel are publicly financed by arts councils, which tend to select more nationally-meaningful scripts). This means that center and periphery can be more meaningfully defined in relationship to ideology rather than geography. The proliferation of films that deal with the growing place of religion in Israeli national life is therefore a reflection of a cultural-historical process and the anxieties or celebrations of it, depending on a filmmakers’ point of view.
EK: How would you then treat the place of religion in a show like Empire Zagoury, a show that is a “periphery” show par excellence?
YP: I would say that the two seasons so far of Empire Zagoury were phenomenally popular because they accurately reflect two of the most visible and powerful cultural trends in Israel today: the migration of Mizrahi sensibilities and religious influences into the center of Israeli culture. Zagoury epitomizes that migration in its focus on a rowdy Israeli-Moroccan family in Beer-Sheva and in the arrangement of the plot around the matriarch's religiously inspired superstitions. In other words, Empire Zagoury is a popular show that moves the center to the Mizrahi periphery, and turns Judaism into an easily digestible “religion” that is not much more than simple superstition. The show quite ingeniously conflates the two to define a new Israeliness for Zionism's second century. Moreover, it performs this trick through the generic conventions of a reality show, delivering the excess of multiculturalism through postmodernist artistry to produce a show that is something altogether new and which takes us beyond postmodernism to a new cultural era.
I say this because the show makes no excuses for the ignorance of its characters, one of whom demands, for instance, that the Israeli state acknowledge that the painful absorption of Jewish immigrants from Morocco into Israel is equivalent to the Nazi Holocaust. The conflation of ignorance and chutzpa is a good example of the marriage of nonsensical multiculturalism with the conventions of a reality show, whose drama is based on the clash of unmitigated egos. And yet the show puts all of these components together in wonderfully dramatic ways that are greater than these ignoble components I enumerated.
It is difficult to say what this era will look like, but judging from the show, I would say that it charts an Israel that seems to fit much better into the Eastern Mediterranean region that neither its founders imagined nor its current cultural leaders (Mizrahim and national religious Jews) realize; an Israel whose ties to the West, to Enlightenment and to modernism are becoming weaker in favor of a religious tribalism, which gives the Zionist vision of Return a whole new meaning.