The characteristic that defines most the national-religious movement in Israel has traditionally been Torah Va’Avodah (תורה ועבודה), an expression dating back to the Talmud expressing the combination of two values: the study of Torah and work. The logo of the leading (for now) youth movement of the national-religious sector, Bene’ Akiva (בני עקיבא), depicts the tablets of the Covenant with two letters: Taf (ת) for Torah and ‘Ain (ע) for Avoda. This has always been the sine qua non ethical principle of the kippot serugot in Israel.
Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah (“Ne’emanei”) was established in the mid 1970s as a movement with political aspirations, but very quickly turned into a non-political movement affiliated with the Religious Kibbutz. Its mission: to promote the values of Torah Va’Avodah. Like many other ideological organizations it had its share of rifts and breakups, but it never lost vision of its main mission. It does so by means of a journal (De’ot), conferences and lectures, press releases, etc. I joined the movement as a member a few years ago, when I was still living in Japan.
Some of the topics and issues brought to public debate by Ne’emanei may seem inappropriate to mainstream national-religious Israelis, who prefer to ignore reality or at the very least avoid airing dirty linen in public. Sadly, a complex and critical approach to life has never been the forte of this mainstream. I can understand how narrow-minded people can get scared when confronted with issues like Torah study by women, or the separation of religion and state. Fear is not conducive to rational debate; it is far easier to discredit the person you don’t agree with. And this is exactly what has been happening to N’e’emanei these last few weeks.
Ne’emanei came under attack by a group I have never heard about before: Ra’ananim (literally, “the fresh ones”). The accusation: Ne’emanei is funded by the New Israel Fund. This fund has been the target of incessant attacks by right-wing politicians and activists in Israel in recent years, who view it as “anti Zionist” and “pro Palestinian”. In some circles, the New Israel Fund is seen as a group of self-hating, back-stabbing Jews. Misguided in the best case; traitors in the worst case. Ne’emanei has traditionally been associated with the modern Orthodoxy wing of the national-religious sector and therefore a “natural suspect” for being left-wing and quasi-traitorous itself.
Ne’emanei were quick to publish documentation showing the funding did not come directly from the New Israel Fund, and that in any case it was marginal in nature. The minute I saw their response, I knew it would be a waste of time. Personally I don’t see a problem with getting funds from the New Israel Fund, so naturally I don’t see the need for any justifications. Needless to say, I also don’t have a problem with “leftist” views, even if I understand why Ne’emanei prefers to stay out of the political debate. But even if any of these allegations are true, facts are the last thing that will deter the likes of Ra’ananim from spewing their hatred.
The real problem is how easily a movement like Ne’emanei can be dragged publicly in the mud, using ridiculous (and probably false) allegations. Last shabbat, Ra’ananim published a full-page ad in one of the ubiquitous synagogue rags, using the word “infiltrators” (מסתננים), which to Israelis has connotations of Arab terrorism. And Ne’emanei is not alone; the ad had the logos of other national-religious movements, all belonging to the so-called “modern Orthodox” movement. The fact that tiny bunch of fanatic activists can so easily blacken the name of movements that promote values such as tolerance, justice, democracy and equality, says a lot about present-day Israel.