On the 38th anniversary of the death of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister, the usual memorial event was held on December 1, at Ben Gurion's graveside in Sdeh Boker, the Negev desert village where he lived during his retirement years.
Uri Avnery wrote in his Gush Shalom column , that Israeli newspapers published a picture of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's current Prime Minister, speaking "under a big photo of the late leader gazing thoughtfully into the distance".
Avnery noticed a small detail in the picture. Avowed atheist Netanyahu was wearing the traditional Orthodox head-covering of respect, a kippah, a head covering that reminds the wearer that he is always "under" Yahweh.
This surprised Avnery, the "grand old man" of Israel's largely secular peace camp, who wonders, why was Netanyahu wearing a kippah?
Ben-Gurion (pictured above) was not religious. He was a convinced atheist. He refused to wear a kippah even at funerals. Avnery acknowledged that even though he is also a complete atheist he will sometimes, out of consideration for the feelings of others, wear a kippah at funerals.
Male believers wear a kippah, according to Jewish tradition, as a sign of respect for God. Atheistic Jews do not wear the kippah not because they disrespect God; they just don't believe in Yahweh. Specifically:
Wearing of a head covering (yarmulka, skullcaps, kippah [pl. kippot]) for men was only instituted in Talmudic times (approximately the second century CE). The first mention of it is in Tractate Shabbat, which discusses respect and fear of God.
Some sources likened it to the High Priest who wore a hat (Mitznefet) to remind him something was always between him and God.
But why was Netanyahu, also a secular atheist, remembering Ben Gurion by appearing in public wearing a kippah?
The place was not a synagogue, nor even a cemetery. So why for God's sake (sorry) did the man put this black kippah on his head?
Not wearing a kippah is a statement of belief in Zionism, which was created initially as a revolt against Jewish Orthodoxy. The first Zionists were not religious; they were hardline socialist secularists.
Today, almost four decades after Ben Gurion's death, in one of those major unintended consequences of history, the state of Israel is currently governed by a political coalition which relies heavily on the political power of Jewish Orthodox believers.
For Avnery, Netanyahu's kippah is a sign of what Avnery calls "the re-Judaization of Israel". The Israel that Ben Gurion helped establish a secular state, has found political value in returning to religious Orthodoxy signs of belief.
The wily politician, Netanyahu has played the religion card. US political candidates, who are his staunch political allies, have dutifully followed his lead.
Ben Gurion did not anticipate this. He believed that the new state, located as a small minority in the midst of inhospitable community of Muslim states, could only survive as an ever-expanding modern secular and militarily strong, nation.
The irony of Ben Gurion's vision of a modern Israel is that the Orthodox Jewish religion which he had rejected and which he thought would soon end as a religious force, has now become a major player in Israel's governance.