The Humanist Dilemma: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

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Fight Or Flight: I have been dealing with a problem for quite some time and this column seems like a good place to find help.

I live in Israel. It is a very religious country. For instance:

  • There is an official state religion (and on top of that, only a specific denomination of that religion is officially recognized);
  • Most public schools are religious (and in all secular schools there are always classes reserved for religious studies);
  • Many laws and court rulings are based directly on religious principals;
  • Religious courts have absolute power over certain issues (for example, in order for the state to recognize a divorce, the husband literally has to renounce ownership of the wife; and LGBTQ individuals get only the most basic recognition at best);
  • Public transportation is completely shut down on weekends; and
  • The food industry is crippled by nonsensical religious regulations.

In addition to all of these religious rules, the government is controlled by a group of parties who seem to be competing for most religiously extreme and best at pandering to religious groups.

The country is still democratic to some extent, and I live in a sort of secular haven with full control of many aspects of my life.

My dilemma is one that many atheists and secularists here face: should I move somewhere else? We are a tiny minority within this country, and it feels like we are getting smaller every day.

I believe in this country, and I want a better future for everyone living here, Jewish and Palestinian. At the same time, there are only a handful of secular organizations, and they are mostly only discussed within the hardcore atheist community. All my friends and family live here, but sometimes I just can’t take it anymore. When I have children one day, I want them to choose for themselves how they want to live their lives, but I also want them to be familiar with the amazing culture that exists within this country, despite everything that I mentioned.

In short, I both hate and love this place. I desperately want it to change but I also want a better life for myself.

What can I do?

–I Have No Illusions Regarding London, London Is Not Waiting For Me (a quote from Israel’s greatest playwright, Hanoch Levin)


Dear No Illusions,

Your question boils down to whether you opt to stay and fight in the hope of making some progress toward the change you seek or leave the battle behind and find a better place for yourself. A compromise would be to give it a bit longer, with the promise to yourself that if you conclude the situation is hopeless, getting worse, or simply intolerable, you will exit.

The reason to stay is that if you leave, you are abandoning people who feel the way you do and abdicating to the religious extremists. The reason to go is to save yourself further frustration and disappointment in trying to change things history and current events indicate aren’t getting better any time soon. Although another argument for staying is that you might not end up happier where you go next, that’s always the gamble with any move. Antisemitism seems to be on the rise in many places, and that might affect you wherever you go, regardless of how non-observant you are.

I know many people in Israel who are far less religious than most of their American Jewish counterparts, and they seem to shrug off as inconveniences the things that bother you so much. But like you, I’ve been irritated when I’ve been in an Israeli hotel on a Friday night, riding interminable Sabbath elevators that automatically stop, open, wait, and close at every single floor, even though I’m the only passenger; or trying to find food during Passover when most restaurants and shops are closed for an entire week. And I’ve just had to put up with this stuff for a week, not my whole life. I know many Israelis who live in the United States, primarily in New York City, which has about as many Jews as Israel. They seem to have no trouble finding community with other Israelis if they want to, and they are free to observe their religion at whatever level they choose, or not at all.

So it comes down to your bonds in Israel, in terms of work, family, friends, and emotions, vs. where else you might go and what you would seek and find there. Your potential future children are also a serious consideration, hinging on whether you feel it’s more important to grow up around your family or in a more secular environment. Although it would be admirable if you chose to stay and fight for what you cherish, along with the many other Israelis who share your views (I confess I thought that was a huge but legally overruled majority, but perhaps that imbalance has tipped as the Orthodox have been proliferating, and maybe the more secular individuals have been exiting) — ultimately, the question is your own immediate and long-term happiness. If the country is driving out people like you, it might be better to extricate yourself sooner than engage in a battle that is likely to defeat you later. Planning to visit as often as possible might ease your exodus.

It’s difficult-to-impossible for a nation to be a religious state and a democracy simultaneously. No one knows which way that pendulum will ultimately swing in Israel, but right now it seems to be moving away from secular—but the same can be said for the US as we face this new government. Increasingly, people everywhere are living within bubbles of like-minded fellows bumping up against bubbles of opposing views. There’s probably no perfect place for anyone, only better or worse. You have to weigh whether staying or leaving your current and evolving situation would be better or worse for you. And everyone needs to be vigilant about protecting the separation between church (or synagogue) and state.