News About Yoav Peled

Review by Paul Scham in Israel Studies Review

  • Sep 11, 2019 |

    Yoav Peled and Horit Herman Peled, The Religionization of Israeli Society
    (New York: Routledge, 2018), 250 pp. Hardback, $150.00.

    ‘Religionization’ (hadata) is one of those words like phylacteries (tefillin)
    and Pentecost (Shavuot) that are best left in their original Hebrew. It is
    the central concept of this book (unfortunately used in its gawky English
    form) by noted Israeli political scientist Yoav Peled and Horit Herman
    Peled, a fine arts and media culture researcher, which demonstrates both
    the actual dangers to Israeli life by the process of hadata, as well as the
    myopia that afflicts much of the secular left when talking about Judaism
    in Israel. In an attempt to avoid confusion I will use hadata when referring
    to the actual process, and Religionization when referring to the book itself.

    The thesis of the book is neatly encapsulated in the introduction: “Religious
    Zionism is fast becoming the hegemonic sector in Israeli society”
    (17). Note that it does not mention traditional religious Judaism, whether of
    the ‘modern’ or Haredi forms, which, we learn later, are incorporated into
    Religious Zionism through the processes of hegemony. The Peleds’ argument
    is that all of these varieties are subsumed in and aiding the process
    of hadata, even if their devotees are unaware that they are doing so. It thus
    mirrors the characterization used by Rabbi A. Y. Kook, the first Ashkenazi
    chief rabbi of Palestine, who referred to secular Jews as the “Messiah’s donkey”
    because, by fulfilling the mitzvah of living in and rebuilding the Land
    of Israel, they were, unheedingly, bringing the Redemption closer.

    The first chapters of the book lead us through the rise and fall of the
    Labor hegemony (the latter largely self-inflicted, especially by stripping
    the Histadrut of its businesses and membership) and the subsequent rise of
    the ‘Religious Zionist challenge’. In the chapter of that title, the Peleds analyze
    polling and demographic data showing that the National Religious
    population is younger and growing faster than the rest of the population
    (which is undeniable). But they claim as well that “what may be viewed
    as the national religious sphere of influence is at least as large as the core
    national religious sector and includes people holding the whole range of
    levels of religiosity that exist in the society” (53–54). In other words, the
    values, ethos, and political beliefs of the National Religious sector have
    spread well beyond those whose religious practice is normative ‘national
    Orthodox’ (largely synonymous with ‘modern Orthodox’ in the US).

    One of my two major criticisms of the book is its insistence that all
    forms of Jewish religiosity are symptomatic of the expansion and hegemony
    (in the Gramscian sense) of national Orthodox political and social
    values and aims. These ‘hegemonizing’ groups include Haredim of all
    stripes, Conservative, Reform, TALI schools (largely formed and directed
    by Conservative-oriented American olim), and New Age/Jewish Renewal
    movements. However, in my view, and certainly in their own, most of
    these groups are explicitly and politically opposed to much or all of the
    National Religious agenda. When I brought this up with Yoav Peled at a
    discussion of the book in which I was a panelist, he dismissed these groups
    as “useful idiots” (shades of Rav Kook’s Messiah’s donkey!).

    The book goes on to document National Religious penetration into the
    spheres of education, the IDF, fine arts, feminism, and film, television,
    and media. While some of this penetration (e.g., education
    and the IDF) is well known and the subject of considerable public discussion, other
    aspects, especially the fine arts and feminism, are less so. Again, here
    the Peleds see any Jewish religious manifestations as proof of National
    Religious inroads. According to their interpretation of hegemony, opposition
    to Orthodox strictures and demands for loosening its strictures serve
    objectively to make Orthodoxy more acceptable. I am highly dubious that
    any such thing ‘objectively’ happens.

    My other criticism of the book is that it provides no positive vision of
    any role for Judaism in Israel. Other than the timeworn argument over a
    ‘state for the Jews’ versus a ‘Jewish state’, the book does not supply any
    vision that takes into account the reality of the enhanced role of religion
    in Israel, as in all Middle Eastern states. I got the strong feeling that the
    Peleds are not so secretly yearning for the Israel they knew before the 1967
    War changed everything—a time when Haredim were barely visible and
    the Mafdal was a liberal extension of Mapai that cared only about mildly
    increasing the availability of kosher food and observance of Shabbat, and
    when very few people argued about ‘who is a Jew’. Those days are long
    gone, and those of us who are critical of the role that religious extremists
    play in Israeli society today should ourselves have a vision of what we
    would like to see. The US, perhaps needless to say, cannot be a role model
    in this as it is ideologically constituted on totally different premises with
    regard to religion. But I suspect that the Peleds, like many secular Israelis,
    feel more comfortable with religion in the US than in their homeland.

    Despite my criticism, there is no doubt that this is a valuable book in
    presenting—with numerous facts and figures—the demographic, ideological,
    and cultural growth of Religious Zionism. I am not equipped to discuss
    the quarter of the book that is devoted to film and to the fine arts, but
    these chapters are a knowledgeable guide to Orthodox interest in these
    fields, in which, not long ago, few Orthodox Jews would have set foot. I
    should note that Orthodox feminism—the idea that feminists would and
    do take Orthodoxy seriously—seems to surprise the authors by its mere
    existence. This phenomenon of Orthodox feminism is perfectly illustrated
    in an article that appeared in the spring 2019 issue of this journal: “Staying
    and Critiquing: Israeli Orthodox Women Filmmakers” (Seigelsheifer and
    Hartman 2019).

    Despite my caviling, Religionization is an important voice in understanding
    the religious wars currently besetting Israel. I wish, however, that the
    authors would have looked a bit more into Orthodoxy on its own terms
    in order to understand it as a flowering as well as a danger, as an authentic
    and important cultural phenomenon beyond its status as a political
    impediment to eventual peace with the Palestinians and a threat to the
    secular Israeli lifestyle.

    Paul L. Scham
    University of Maryland

    Seigelsheifer, Valeria, and Tova Hartman. 2019. “Staying and Critiquing: Israeli Orthodox
    Women Filmmakers.” Israel Studies Review 34 (1): 110–130.

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