National days of celebration are often commemorated with great fanfare, feasts, and parades, and the State of Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut, is no exception.
However, Israel also marks the anniversary of its establishment with an unusual ritual: the International Bible Quiz (Hidon ha-Tanach). Often presided over by the President or Prime Minister of the State of Israel, the competition, held in Jerusalem, gathers high school students from across the Jewish world to showcase their scriptural prowess on national television. The event has a 40-year history and a pedigree that is older than the state itself, deeply intertwined with the ideological underpinnings of Zionism.
How did the Bible become a part of Israeli national pride? And why hold a quiz on a day meant for celebration?
Many early Zionists were drawn to the Bible because of its mythic-heroic narratives and national perspective. They viewed the Bible as the perfect model for Jewish national rebirth in its homeland, and believed the Bible would allow for a people liberated from the diasporic, legalistic, restrictive, and passive Jewish political existence embodied, in their view, by the Talmud. These Zionists were abandoning a religious Jewish way of life, but by taking hold of the Bible (minus its religious prescriptions) they were establishing themselves as authentically consistent with Jewish values and Jewish continuity. Moreover, by using the ‘first” Jewish book as its guide, the movement implied that it was returning to the original (but since abandoned) purpose of Jewish civilization.
The Origins of the Competition
This project of “Jewish renewal” found its fullest articulation in the leadership of David Ben-Gurion. In public addresses rich with biblical language, Ben-Gurion consistently adopted messages from the Bible to describe the state’s “destiny.” After 1948–as efforts to ground the young state in a historical past intensified, especially through archaeology–Ben-Gurion became a model student of the Bible. He held regular study sessions in his home that were attended by scholars and members of his cabinet.