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Abraham, Part 1: Are 'Secular Israelis' Really Secular?

Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee….

Those are God’s first words to Abraham and, indeed, the first words he ever speaks to a person who can be identified as a Jew. They’re spoken while Abraham (called Abram at this point) is still a Mesopotamian living in an extended family headed by his father Terah.

The land God speaks of is Canaan—Israel. In it, great things will happen:

I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing:

And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.

There is only one precondition for these portentous things: they have to be centered in Canaan. The text gives no explanation for why God singles out Abraham, or why the mission of Abraham and his nation has to be Israel-focused. It is, one might say, a fundament — bedrock.

And once Abraham is dwelling in the land, the majesty of his vocation there recurs like a leitmotif in verses of stunning beauty. For instance:

For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.

And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered.

Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it….

When at a later stage Abraham complains to God that he seems ill-suited to this mission, since he and his wife are unable to conceive, God hints that this is not a permanent state of affairs:

And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.

Genesis, then, like the Hebrew Bible as a whole, is a profoundly Zionist book. In that regard, Abraham’s mission and ethos are like those of the modern state of Israel: to establish (or reestablish) the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, so as to work out their destiny there.

“Secular” Israelis — to the extent that they stay in Israel and are committed to doing so, which describes most of them — participate in this Abrahamic project. But do they perceive it as a religious calling? The abovementioned survey result suggests that they do, as do others in the same study: “the…findings indicate that most Israeli Jews feel a strong sense of belonging and affinity for the State of Israel and Judaism….”

I would add that the totality of life here makes it difficult not to have such affinities.