The Body Politic Electric

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for Israel to unplug for Yom Kippur.

Orthodox Jewish boys in Jerusalem

Yom Kippur is devoted to atonement and forgiveness—or “conscience consciousness-raising,” as I once heard a rabbi still recovering from the ‘70s phrase it. In itself, the purpose of the holiday needn’t really affect day-to-day life, except that observance takes the form of a 25-hour fast and the total abstention from physical labor and the use of technology. Jews in the Diaspora spend most of Yom Kippur at home or in synagogue, where the absence of electricity hardly affects the greater gentile grids. But in Israel, which effectively shuts down for Yom Kippur, the contradiction between ancient religious tradition and modernity is brought into stark relief once a year, creating either a brief trance of neo-Luddite serenity or a sliver of Dark Age privation.

Decades ago, when Israel was still locked in an agrarian economy, this contradiction was inconspicuous. Today, the country’s largest, fastest-growing industries are tech-related. Although children on bicycles and video-store patronage have long been staple examples of Yom Kippur apostasy, the advent of global media has forever altered the possibilities for transgression.

During the Days of Awe, the 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, stores in Israel close early and radios broadcast liturgical music—all in rehearsal for the big blackout that occurs when God is said to seal the fate of each individual Jew for the coming year in the Book of Life. On the Day of Atonement, all Israeli radio and national television broadcasts are taken off the air, factories are closed, roads and highways are cleared of traffic, public transportation is halted, and all aircraft are grounded. Anwar Sadat made historic use of this short-term stasis in an otherwise dynamic society by choosing Oct. 6, 1973, as the date for Egypt and Syria’s joint attack on Israel in what was soon branded the Yom Kippur War. (Some historians now argue that the timing was actually beneficial to Israel’s ultimately victorious counter-response, as all roads were empty when Israel Defense Forces reservists were mobilized.) On the whole, religious and nonreligious Israelis alike observe the holiday in some fashion. According to a survey conducted in 2008 by the Panals Institute, 63 percent of Israeli Jews said that they’d fast on Yom Kippur even though the bulk of the population skirts the Sabbath the rest of the year. “One day totally free of car horns, telephone calls, email and polluted air,” Joel Leyden of the Israel News Agency noted in 2006, capturing an ecumenical sentiment.

But in the age of CNN and Twitter, it’s getting harder for an entire nation to unplug. On Yom Kippur in 1995, synagogues were filled with whispers as news of the O.J. Simpson acquittal spread. Matt Silver, a professor of Jewish history, also reminded me of the swiftness with which riots broke out in the northeastern city of Akko last year after an Israeli Arab drove his car into a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. “How did the people hear of that incident if not through banned technological means?” Silver asked. My Tablet colleague Liel Liebovitz, who grew up just outside Tel Aviv in the ‘80s, recently wrote about how technology actually alienated him from his favorite Jewish holiday: “Even if the Israeli channels darkened their screens for a day on Yom Kippur, MTV in Hong Kong, or the soccer channel out of Milan, or any of the other stations included in our subscription plan went about their business as usual.”

The key word here is business. In the last decade, the fusion of venture capitalism and Silicon Valley-style savvy has completely transformed Israel into a first-rate economic power, one that has so far proved formidable in weathering the global downturn. As noted in this City Journal essay by George Gilder, an editor at Forbes and the author of The Israel Test, the Jewish state now launches more high-tech companies per year than any European nation. In 2007, it surpassed Canada as being home to the most foreign companies listed on the dot-com-friendly NASDAQ index. It’s second only to the United States in the six key fields of technology development: telecom, microchips, software, biopharmaceuticals, medical devices, and clean energy. A major contribution to the boom has been the influx of more than 1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union, beginning in the late ‘80s with the Gorbachev reforms. They not only increased Israel’s population by one-quarter but today constitute half of Israel’s high-tech workers. Many Soviet Jews are secular and growing increasingly hostile to the Israeli rabbinate due to its exclusive legal authority to determine the requirements for marriage. Indeed, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party performed as well as it did in last February’s parliamentary election because it promised the emollient of civil marriage to Russian émigrés.

The only area where Yom Kippur melds easily with Israel’s technological advancement is environmental science. Being the only day on the calendar without automobiles makes the holiday the perfect control for studies in air pollution. The Israeli Environmental Protection Ministry found that on Yom Kippur in 2007, the amount of nitrogen oxide in the air in Jerusalem dropped from 250 parts per billion to 12 parts per billion. The holiday is also something of an unintentional trendsetter: “A Day Without Cars,” a green event, has been implemented around the world since 2000 as a way of both reducing carbon emissions and getting urbanites to rediscover their cities on foot. As Orna Coussin observed in a lovely Haaretz tribute to the holiday, a minor coincidence of this phenomenon is that Ford’s Model T first rolled off the assembly line in Detroit on the week of Yom Kippur in 1908.

In a way, Israeli environmentalism has the most in common with the agrarian-socialist culture that used to be inextricable from 20th-century Zionism. A few years ago in Slate, Judith Shulevitz remarked on efforts to try to modernize the Israeli Sabbath so that the rift between secular and religious Jews might shrink. The sociological appeal of this project is that it aims to revive a “public”—as opposed to popular—culture in Israel. But Thoreauvian reminiscences about a day with no video games are bound to grow scarce as more Israelis exchange the factory and the kibbutz for the cubicle and the laboratory. Perhaps the guiltiest confession of all is that the Day of Atonement may become a postindustrial curio in another 60 years of Jewish statehood.