July 14, 2024

on the Israeli atheist convention

A couple weeks ago, I posted to this blog a promotion for an atheist conference called MA-HA-R, “Tomorrow”, described as an Israeli Reason Rally in Tel Aviv.  One never knows how these things will turn out in advance, and I had my doubts.  When I went to the World Atheist Convention in Dublin, there were less than 400 attendees and we had Dawkins with us.  How well could Isreal possibly do?  Well by the time I posted my blog promotion, they had already sold more than 400 tickets.

Their conference center had four lecture halls with a total of 700 seats.  When Hitchens was booked to speak at the American Atheist convention of 2011, that venue would have been more than adequate, and the Isreali Atheist Association only expected to draw around 500 people with their couple dozen speakers.  That event went went down last Thursday, the 10th of this month, and the report I got was that they had filled all four halls.  More than that, they had to turn away hundreds more after they had already exceeded their capacity.  Outstanding.

Now I must confess my ignorance of the demographics in their country.  All I knew of Israel growing up was that they’ve been the hot-bed of militant violence forever. Abraham’s god of infinite love, forgiveness, and mercy spawned three major faiths, all of whom have been at war with each other, each since their inception, and it seems that God’s spyglass of magnified torment was usually focused right there.  This should come as no surprise to anyone who has read the Old Testament and noticed the patterns therein.  If YHWH promised a holy land to his chosen people, they should expect more damnation than paradise.  That would be consistent with the Bible’s blood-stained stories, and that’s the way we’ve always seen it on the news in my country.  There would be less milk and honey, and more uprisings and explosions, especially when it means mixing or displacing so many fundamentally polarized religious and cultural groups.  If I have not been completely mislead by the media, then maybe that’s why there are so many atheists in that area now.  In any case, even if the environment is not as severely charged as I had imagined, seeing such a turnout of activists interested in a securely secular government is encouraging.

12 thoughts on “on the Israeli atheist convention

  1. Historically the Zionist movement had a strong secular component. Among other things the Zionists rebelled against the traditional religious view according to which Jews were to sit quietly in the diaspora and wait for Yahweh to send the Messiah so he could lead them to the promised land. However in the early days of Israel’s statehood Ben-Gurion (himself an agnostic) made many significant concessions to the religious Jewish establishment, including state support of a separate religious educational stream (now at least 2 streams, and in contrast with the closing down of the socialist stream), establishing exclusive authority to religious venues for matters of marriage and divorce, and the creation of a state-supported class of men who neither work nor serve in the military but dedicate their time to religious study. While in the early days the impact of these concessions was rather small the demographic benefiting from them has ballooned and has become a major political force. Hence the need for a stronger secular response and a more explicitly atheist identity.

    1. Thank you for that explanation, Anat. I have a friend in Haifa, someone I used to ride with in Arizona. Ziv told me he was a Zionist, but he never explained what that meant. He probably expected that we wouldn’t know enough of about your history to understand him.

      1. If there is no god, then all that stuff in the old testament is made up.

        Hence, Judaism is a fraud.

        Give up and go home to Europe, atheist Jews. Leave the land to the Palestinians.

  2. As someone who recently moved to Israel to work in the tech sector, I have to reiterate what Anat wrote.

    It has completely amazed me beyond words how incredibly uninformed everyone is about this country outside of its borders. Almost all of my friends think that Israel is composed of religious Jews in black hats praying at some wall. The fact is that this is completely untrue. This is a multicultural, multiethnic, society in more visible ways at times than in New York or San Fran (and I’ve lived in both).

    Israel was started by the Zionist movement. Herzl, the father of Zionism, was himself an atheist and had absolutely no time for religious people. In fact, he regarded them with utter scorn. Ben Gurion was agnostic or even atheist, depending on how you viewed the term. Golda Meir was not a religious woman in any sense of the word. The modern Zionists were in fact seen as utter blasphemers by the religious community. If you read the book “The Chosen” by Chaim Potok (based on a true story), you will see that it was the modern atheistic left which created the state of Israel, completely against the traditional religious conservative sentiments – in every sense of the word. It was the left which founded the state based on many communist principles, in fact. The first kibbutzim were communist in almost every respect. They were formed by ideologues, most of whom came from Russia and were completely shrugging off the ghetto mentality of Jews in centuries past. They were, in fact, a complete shock to traditional Jews inside of Israel (of whom there were some), and outside of Israel.

    It was only after 1967, after Israel captured the Temple Mount, that the religious became interested in creating a religious hold in the state, as they viewed the capture of Jerusalem as a sign of the coming of the Messiah.

    Israel today is under threat from those religious communities which have grown by leaps and bounds because the secularists, as everywhere else, have far fewer children than the religious. The power of the religious has grown, but they cannot erase the fact that this country was not founded as a religious foothold. And what pisses me off more than anything, more than *anything*, is how our atheistic left plays right into the hands of the religious, treating Israel as some sort of religious conquering state when it was anything but. I know the political reasons for doing so, and it is utterly wrong. And if we keep treating this state in such a way, and dismissing their original intentions and noble goals, we’re going to lose a very valuable secular historical ally.

    P.S. I also currently live in Haifa.

  3. Bare in mind that here in the US, many of us have grown up constantly hearing the mantra that Israel was founded as a fulfillment of divine prophesy. I had never ever heard any hint that it was of secular origins, and certainly not that it had been founded by atheists. I’m not surprised to find out that was wrong. Practically everything I had been taught about the middle-east turned out to be wrong. It looks like I have quite a lot of homework to do before I go there myself in July.

    1. Yes, I know – being American and having grown up there as well. =)

      But it’s completely untrue. Israeli soldiers do not traditionally go into battle with the equivalent Hebrew cry of “Allahu Akbar”. Typically, the religious do not serve in the military (a *huge* point of contention here, and only one reason why the religious are utterly disliked.)

      Israel does, in fact, have secular origins. I’m not saying that there has never, ever, been a religious block in Israel during the formation, but it was minute compared to the secular influences. And while I never would say today that Israel has no religious problems and sectarian ones, it is no less than any other western nation under religious “threat” from the multitudes of births coming from the religious sector.

      It is true that if you go to certain religious areas, you will see nothing but orthodox Jews. But they are still a minority. Most Israelis live in or around Tel Aviv, and you cannot find a more secular city. Indeed, gay marriage is even recognized as legal here. While you cannot have an actual Jewish gay wedding here, you can have one abroad and be *fully* recognized as married by the state when you return. Also, the recognition of gay soldiers in the Israeli military has been around for well over a decade or more. Gay Palestinians who are discovered more often than not flee to Israel for protection, where they are free from prosecution for being gay.

      This is only one instance between the differences of liberal Israel and the countries which surround it. There is absolutely no prosecution for religious beliefs here, or communist beliefs, or any sort of beliefs. There is a press which is more aggressive in debate than any other which I’ve seen in our country – more critical of the government, louder, and far more open and even inflammatory. This is a country full of non-Jewish Thai people, Nigerians, Chinese, Japanese, Russians (by the millions), Sudanese, Ethiopians – you name it, they’re here, and many of them not Jewish. This is a country where legalization is far more advanced than in the U.S. for medical reasons since years now, and where the influences of so many immigrants is noticeable in every respect. And because of this, the religious are “fighting back”. Well, it’s not going to work if many Israelis can help it.

      And, by the way, I have to say that I’ve never felt more at home with my atheism here than anywhere else. Overall, it’s a very liberal country.

      Now, granted, I don’t go to Jerusalem in certain neighborhoods to hang out wearing cutoff jeans, but they don’t tend to hang out on the beach near Haifa or in Tel Aviv either. =)

      Israel certainly is a “Jewish” state, but culturally Jewish far more than religiously so. And a lot of people here are fighting tooth and nail for it to remain so.

      I do have to add one thing: the last decade or two, after the complete fallout of the peace process, has pushed some Israelis to view it more and more as a religious conflict which is bad. That is, however, only natural. People, during war, tend to revert to more religious outlooks after a while, and Israel has been at war since its foundation and even before. You cannot have a society, however rooted in secularism, be completely immune to this syndrome.

  4. The solid turn-out for the Isreali atheist conference, while gratifying, is something I would have expected. I have to confess I thought summerseale’s information was common knowlegde. I didn’t know that anyone thought that the highly religious people were representative. In fact, what I’ve been reading in the paper has been about how the less religious in the country have been finding themselves more and more at odds with the highly religious as the Ultra-Orthodox try to gain more power.

    Although it surprises me that people have the view of Isreal that you express, when I think about it I shouldn’t be. I’ve probably had more Isreali acquaintances than your typical American non-Jew, a couple of close friends and a boyfriend and through them I met quite a few other people. Also, I’m old enough, although I hate to admit it, to have had a lot of high school and college friends who did a stint working on kibbutz. My stereotype of Isrealis is probably equally off-base. I tend to think of socialist kibbutzim who are probably agnostic, a stereotype which must be woefully out of date if it was ever true.

  5. It’s great to hear that there’s more explicitly atheist activism in Israel now. If there was ever a set of images illustrating the need for secular government, it would be the videos of exasperated Israeli police having to separate Christian, Jewish and Muslim believers throwing punches, tomatoes, chairs and sometimes worse at each other at the various holy sites around Jerusalem. In fact, it was the reading about the generally boneheaded behavior of Israel’s various religious factions that pushed me towards atheism.

    It’s also worth pointing out that the Palestinians have some latent strands of secularism in their history as well. Unfortunately, the conflict with Israel and years of misguided “support” from Muslim theocracies have fostered religious extremism, but I think there’s a glimmer of hope that secularism could reassert itself in the future.

  6. Nice to see that it’s such a success.

    BTW, I’ve seen a curious defense of the ultra-Orthodox men who spend most of their time studying Jewish religious lore. It’s that they are also defending Israel. That made me think that they are like a brigade of mages in a sword-and-sorcery army.

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