Secularism, Education, and Emotions

Cultural Tensions in Hebrew Palestine (1882–1926)

by Yair Seltenreich (Author)
©2015 Monographs VIII, 263 Pages


Secularism, Education, and Emotions: Cultural Tensions in Hebrew Palestine (1882–1926) aims to explore the sources of secularism, its social and emotional significances, its various expressions, and its thorny frictions with different religious environments during the first decades of modern settlement of Jews in Eretz-Israel (Palestine). Accordingly, this book develops four main concepts about secularism in Eretz-Israel: (1) Secularism was, in large part, a reaction against religion; (2) Secularism was not an isolated local occurrence but rather a product of the wider European cultural stage, influenced by ideas of contestation against religious dominance and nascent nationalism; (3) Secularism was essentially an emotional phenomenon in Europe and in Eretz-Israel likewise; (4) In the struggle between religious and secularists in Eretz-Israel, education occupied a major place as the main vehicle for the promotion of ideas.
Utilizing these four main concepts, Yair Seltenreich analyzes the general European frameworks of secularism. His studies illuminate secularist features within European Jewry and its subsequent translation into the Zionist movement and the Eretz-Israeli arena. Lastly, he examines the specific struggles between religious and secularist teachers in Galilee, where the culmination of tensions and of emotional expression allows a deeper understanding of secularism as a cultural issue.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Religion in European culture
  • Cultures and emotions
  • Belief and creed
  • Religion
  • The Religious community
  • Religious institutional domination
  • Chapter Two: Secularism in European culture
  • Influences of modernity
  • Cultural aspects in secularism
  • Sociological aspects in secularism
  • Emotional aspects in secularism
  • Chapter Three: Jewish secularism
  • The eighteenth century: A prelude
  • Aspects in late nineteenth-century Jewish secularism
  • Secularism and Jewish nationalism
  • Chapter Four: Zionist secularism
  • Zionism and secularism
  • Religious presence within the Zionist movement
  • The facets of Jewish secular thought
  • Significance and impact of secular ideas
  • Chapter Five: Yishuv secularism
  • Settlement and secularism in Eretz-Israel
  • Administrative and political aspects
  • Chapter Six: Secularists and religious in Yishuv society
  • Cultural contestations between secularists and religious
  • Hamizrahi
  • The struggle of religious to improve their image
  • Similarities and dissimilarities
  • Chapter Seven: Education, secularism and religion in Eretz-Israel
  • Features of Jewish modern education
  • Features of orthodox education
  • Chapter Eight: The struggle for preservation of religious education
  • The Rabbis Journey
  • Features of Hamizrahi education
  • Chapter Nine: Religion in the Galilee moshavot
  • JCA and the educational system in Galilee moshavot
  • Profile of the Galilee moshava farmer
  • The heder
  • Chapter Ten: The secular teacher in Galilee moshava
  • The teacher as Zionist
  • The teacher in rural religious milieu
  • Solitude and modernity
  • Rural teacher in French Third Republic
  • Teachers and farmers
  • Chapter Eleven: Religious struggles in the moshavot
  • Towards struggle
  • The struggle over Yavne’el
  • The struggle over Sedjera
  • Rosh Pina and other moshavot
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index



This book could not have been written without the funding provided by Posen Foundation and the research authority of Tel Hai College in Israel.

Stephen Mazur, Michelle Salyga and Jackie Pavlovic from Peter Lang were most helpful and supportive. Many have heartily contributed to the successful creation and completion of this book, some by most helpful and enriching advice, others by technical help, others by emotional support and particularly to Gabriel Alexander, Israel Bartal, Nitzan Ben Ner, Yuval Dror, Nava Eisin, Shabtai Gal-On, Haim Goren, Shira Hantman, Yona Hen, Yossi Katz, Yehiel Leket, Iggi Litaor and Ido Tenenbaum. I owe this book to the patience and support of my life-partner, Anat, as to my children, Idit, Avital, Michael and Guy. ← vii | viii →


← viii | ix →



Secularism was, and still is, at the same time a practice and an idea, a formation and a formulation of worldview and lifestyle, a personal and a collective experience, struggle and acceptance. As such it was an important factor in cultural life of Hebrew society in Palestine during its first decades. This book will examine how educational activities and emotional manifestations have influenced the particular turn of secularism in that arena. In other words, the book will focus essentially on the reflections of struggles and management of sensitivities in secularism. What did secularism mean for its proponents and why did it become so provocative? The reason may be because secularism was obliged to find its justification in relating itself to religion in a negative manner. This forceful attachment and the need for incessant legitimization consequently put forward an emotional expressivity. Indeed, as emotionality seemed to be a common denominator for most phases of secularism, theories of the history of emotions will be at the base of many analyses in this book.

The idea for this book evolved while I was writing a different book concerning the origins of nascent Hebrew education in which I was focusing on a micro-historical test-case about eleven specific rural settlements, moshavot (singular: moshava), totaling less than 3000 persons, most of them downtrodden and non-sophisticated farmers, in the peripheral region of Galilee during the first decades of the Twentieth century. I soon discovered that writing about education meant in fact writing ← 1 | 2 → about controversies, particularly in a newly born environment, where the struggle for cultural supremacy, usually applied through emotional patterns via the vehicle of education, became dominant. In the case of Eretz-Israel1 Hebrew nationalism, of which educational system was a major standard-bearer, was painted with clear secular features. I was however surprised during my research by the intensive, mostly negative, emotions that secular education aroused within more conservative environment of local Jewish population.

I also came to the conclusion that micro-historic arena of the moshavot which, richly documented, unearthed hidden fears and suspicions and stirred covert hatreds, was not a whim of history, but indeed a clear and truthful reflection of the whole Jewish scene in Eretz-Israel. This conflict about the nature of education, which became a central issue of cultural Jewish arena, developed from the beginning of the twentieth century and culminated into an open fight in the moshavotduring the first half of the 1920s, with the almost total religious take-over of education in the moshavot. This struggle emphasized the sensitive role of secularism in defining national and social identities at their preliminary stages.

Through the present book I mean to elaborate in the present three more general reflections concerning the place secularism had in Hebrew cultural sphere. First, I came to consider secularism as one of the main issues of the Hebrew state, as it expressed individual transformations alongside national regeneration, meaning it was at the same time a national as well as an individual issue for most Hebrew settlers. Moreover, secularism was essentially an emotional phenomenon as it concerned inner conflicts, often not completely settled. Finally, education was one of its clearer expressions. The book does not intend to propose any conclusive philosophical or sociological inquiry of secularism, but rather to observe its expressions and consequences through the historian’s glasses. I believe that the particular educational and emotional events related to secularism that took place in Eretz-Israel might be illustrative in observing overt and covert sources that nurtured tensions between religious and secularists in more general domains. The timespan of the book starts with the first wave of Jewish modern immigration, the First Aliah, in 1882 and ends at 1926, when the process of transition, which I already mentioned, of many moshavot from secular to religious educational system came to conclusion.

The book will focus both on secularists as personae and on on secularism as a general social phenomenon. It will concentrate on reactions and struggles more than on the ideas that motivated them. The idea of secularism will serve as a conceptual cloak enrobing activities rather than a theme in and of its own. It is therefore not in the scope of the book to delve into the notions of secularism in all their aspects. Rather, the book will touch on only those elements which will contribute to a better understanding of the cultural contestations in Hebrew society, ← 2 | 3 → and more precisely the reflection of tensions and emotional expressions in the field of education which, as will be largely explained, became the spearhead for introducing beliefs and creeds in the guise of values, representing wholly constructed ideas as if they were self-conceived concepts.

All four major themes of the book, namely the religious and non-religious practices, the tensions they involved, the strife over educational contents and finally the emotional make-up of the people, all combine together in my effort to understand the ways secularism was conceived in Eretz-Israel at that period. The investigation of practical interpretations of secularism and their cultural and emotional imprints would imply questions concerning for instance, tensions between individuals and communities, psychological attitudes or efforts towards ideological influences. The book will also try to penetrate hidden notions of sensibilities or dominative tendencies, embedded in the contact between secularists and their environments. It will also attempt to understand the role played by identities, symbols, myths and narratives in this cultural process. These are reflected through the unmasked superiority seculars demonstrated towards believers, the romantic aspect of their nationalism, and a multitude of other symbolic attitudes. This was the rationale of my lengthy initial discussion, in the first chapters, of some more general concepts and attitudes adopted by secularists, for instance towards belief or towards the Jewish community in general. My intention was to sketch a wider context, trying to lead to better understandings of feelings such as estrangement or stress and their potential consequences.

It is important at this stage to emphasize three points concerning secularism. The first one, already mentioned, is that a Gordian knot linked, albeit negatively, secularism with religion and that religion remained the most dominant trait that nourished secular sentiments and attitudes. By preceding secularism, religion determined it as a reactive trend. Had there been neither God, nor creed or ritual, secularism would have had no meaning as an idea. If secularism favored, for example, freedom of thought, then it implicitly meant freedom from something, bonds of religion in this case. Indeed, secularism drew its power and its significance from being a reactive movement to already existing religious concepts. It was destined therefore to relate to those concepts, be it by proposing alternative similarities of cosmic logic, like Nature or Reason, or simply by discarding their inner philosophy or rituals. This tension between secularism and multiple forms of religious phases was particularly apparent in Judaism. Becoming significant for the first time in the eighteenth century, Jewish secularism was ever-growing at the beginning of the twentieth century. The initial discussion in this book will therefore deal with expressions of beliefs and creeds, as basic elements in the relationship between human beings and the cosmic forces that dominated their lives. In other words, ← 3 | 4 → more emphasis will be given to emotional reactions that were fuelled by conflicts than to the multiple particular causes that laid in their origins. Religion should be represented at this stage mainly through its final patterns, as a regulating and hierarchizing constituent, which reinforced communal aspects of the believers, and secularism as a controversial derivative of creed and institutional religion. From the moment secularism was understood as a response to various forms of religious authority, it expressed a struggle between two cultures, an ascending one and a persevering one. ‘Cultural’ is a key word here, as it clarifies the sources of contest, even when later social or political aspects came to dominate the scene. Emotions, it should be reminded, are basically also generated by cultural conceptions and habits. The test-case of Galilee moshavot becomes in that case an illustration of a widespread aspect of modernity, in which the values of secularism developed into a kind of doctrine, and which explains why the arena of primary education became so dominant. Education, it appeared, was the most effective means to introduce not only to represent ideas as if they were absolute values but also regulate emotional behavior.

The second point derives from the first. If secularism was fundamentally a reaction to religion, it is important to analyze its significance according to theories of the history of emotions, which examine the role of emotions both as generators and as derivatives of processes of mental and sentimental shifts. It will be necessary therefore to introduce notions such as ‘emotional suffering’ or ‘emotional communities’ advanced by William Reddy and Barbara Rosenwein, which will be elaborated on further. If similarities can be found between the emotional dynamics that prevailed in secularist and religious environments, i.e. ‘navigation of emotions’ as a reaction to changing balance of power, then the test-case of the Galilee might indeed be fruitful as a source for wider inquiries. It should be noted that the book will limit itself to the European cultural sphere of Christianity and Judaism alone, which inspired the concepts and the views of secularists in nascent Eretz-Israel.

Finally, the intensity of tensions between the observant (religious) and secularists, the passions that nurtured lengthy, sometimes fierce, struggles, and the emotions that were cast into reasoning and discussions, will be examined in the initial stages of Hebrew settlement in Eretz-Israel, specifically activities that concerned the first generation of secularists. This first generation was very close, both physically and emotionally, to the religious society against which it revolted. It grew up in traditional environments and has preserved the memories, in which often feelings of fearfulness and spite and nostalgia were intertwined in a fascinating manner. In following generations a greater estrangement contributed to reducing sensitive contacts and to mitigating feelings. ← 4 | 5 →

A clear example of the reflection of general ideas or situations in the narrow field of the particular test-case is seen through the notion of ‘formative years of nationalism’. This expression hardly meant ‘nationalism’ in its restricted sense, be it Norwegian nationalism after 1905, Hungarian nationalism after 1918 or Turkish after the Treaty of Sèvres. In its wider scope in new, or reborn, nations, it implied cultural re-definition no less than mere sentiment. National resurgence – and Jews clearly considered Zionism as an expression of resurgence – implied a need to re-examine national identity in reference to the past hence, in the Jewish case, to religious attributes. This consideration tied together nationalism and culture, both in the commemorative and the creative sense of the term. But the decisive role religion played stood in opposition to the modernist inspirations of secularism. Moreover, national resurgence stood in opposition to symbolic ‘shameful’ diaspora life. This collective shame was clearly present in Hebrew national discourse and in many cases assimilated with the oppressive dominancy of religious institutionalism, representing the throes of conservative life in the diaspora – hence the positive implicit significance of Secularism.

The course of the book is a derivative of the major issues invoked above. Starting by following more general characteristics of religion and secularism in European culture, and frictions that appeared in their tangent spheres of influence, the book will gradually focus on the more particular ardent contestations that took place in Jewish modern culture, infiltrated into Hebrew society and reflected in Galilee moshavot. The first two chapters give some global aspects of European religiousness and secularism. The first chapter concerns religion. It deals with elements such as the role of belief as a cornerstone in religious institutional domination. The second chapter deals with European secularism, the relationship between secularism and modernism, and some of its cultural and mental aspects. The next four chapters present a more thorough examination of the Jewish case. Chapter Three focuses on Jewish secularism in the European arena, starting with its first noticeable expressions at the end of the eighteenth century, and then its upsurge at the close of the nineteenth. Chapter Four concentrates on Zionism as the national aspect of secular Judaism. It also addresses the measure intellectual and philosophical Jewish writing influenced at that time the secularist masses. The most vivid expression of Zionism was in Eretz-Israel and its secularist impact there is the subject of Chapter Five. The local orthodox Jewish population barely tolerated the advent of the massive wave of secularism and a particular social texture consequently developed between the two camps, which Chapter Six tries to trace and to analyze. The important role of education in this context is further explored. Chapter Seven illustrates how education became an influential tool in the struggle between religious and secularists in the Eretz-Israeli arena, as both sides ← 5 | 6 → realized its power as a mobilizing vehicle and as an efficient tool to mold younger minds. This process soon involved political elements and consequently was subjected to threats, ploys and manipulations. Chapter Eight analyzes the religious reactions to the mounting influence of the secular education preserve and their efforts to reinforce their influence in the educational domain in Eretz-Israel. The last three chapters concentrate on the much illustrative occurrences in the Galilee. Chapters nine and ten sketch respectively the educational and emotional worldview of religious farmers and of secularist teachers, while the last chapter describes some of the serious fights for cultural domination through education that shook the rural atmosphere of the 1920s. ← 6 | 7 →



VIII, 263
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (May)
Eretz-Israel moshavot yishuv
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. VIII, 263 pp.

Biographical notes

Yair Seltenreich (Author)

Yair Seltenreich holds a PhD in social history from Nantes University in France. He is a senior lecturer at Tel Hai College and Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, specializing in the history of education and the history of emotions in Hebrew society in pre-state Israel. His most recent book, in Hebrew, is People from Here: Educators and Education in Galilee Moshavot During Yishuv Period (1882–1939) (2014).


Title: Secularism, Education, and Emotions