No, Israel Isn’t Turning into an Iran-Style Theocracy

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, The New Republic, 2-2-12

The demonizing of Israel, dismissing the democratic Jewish state as a right-wing, religious, racist project, continues. The latest storyline describes ultra-Orthodox Israelis—known in Hebrew as haredim—as medieval Neanderthals rapidly converting Israel into an Iran-style theocracy. This popular caricature encourages those liberals seeking excuses to stop supporting Israel. The appalling images of bearded, black-hatted zealots spitting on eight-year-olds, forcing women to the back of public buses, and parading their children with yellow stars in protest, are all being read as tea leaves predicting Israel’s imminent degeneration into Haredistan. But what if the opposite is true? Haredi rampages seem more like impotent attempts to build a firewall against modernity than harbingers of conquest.

Change is coming to a community defined by its rejection of change. Haredim are joining Israeli society. Haredi vocational programs are proliferating, as government generosity wanes. Over 3000 haredi soldiers have now served in Israel’s army, including a combat-ready unit. Many haredi women, who increasingly are highly educated and working, are demanding more respect while continuing to maintain gender distinctions. The debate about television and internet usage is intensifying, as modern popular culture seeps into the society, which is not hermetically sealed.

While haredi triumphalists emphasize their high birthrate, the outflow of the last two centuries since the Enlightenment continues. Though statistics are elusive, communal anxiety abounds about the apostates. Most haredim, while denying the hemorrhaging, have close relatives who are no longer haredi. The deserters are numerous enough to have inspired a television drama series: Simanei She’eilah (question marks), which tracks the stories of haredi runaways living in a Tel Aviv halfway house, debuted last year.

The Zaka organization provides the most dramatic—and inspiring—example of haredi engagement with Israeli society. Zaka became famous during the second intifada, dispatching ultra-Orthodox crews who cleaned up the spilled blood and pieces of flesh strewn about after bombings. Their reverence and thoroughness impressed normally hostile secular Israelis. Zaka’s heroism, along with the suicide bombings in haredi neighborhoods, reminded all Israelis of their shared destiny. Today, more than 1500 Zaka volunteers nationwide serve in ambulances and participate in search and rescue operations. A Zaka team in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake worked through the Sabbath, saving lives.

One haredi friend, with two sons who served in the army, warns that articles praising Zaka volunteers and haredi soldiers often tout them as the “good” haredim for doing what haredim usually don’t do. “Note the many good deeds done by haredim doing what they normally do, too,” he urges, emphasizing the community’s charitable spirit and elaborate self-help networks. These spawned two leading social service organizations that serve all Israelis: Yad Eliezer established soup kitchens and distributed relief supplies during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, while Yad Sarah’s nationwide network assists the disabled, the elderly, and the housebound.

In the popular media, in both Israel and abroad, images of rock-throwing, gender-segregating, yellow-star-wearing extremists obscure these good works—and a more accurate picture. Noah Efron, a Bar Ilan University philosopher and historian, has explored the ingrained prejudice and popular revulsion against haredim. “The Jewish fight against ultra-Orthodoxy is part of a long-running struggle about what legitimately counts as Jewish,” Professor Efron says. “The modern forms of Judaism have so won the day that this need to continue fighting the battle seems neurotic.” Nevertheless, emphasizing the bad behavior of haredi Jews—who epitomize the stereotypical Jew—makes modern Jews and non-Jews feel better, less judged, suggesting that “these ostensibly superior Jews are actually inferior,” Efron says. “We continually prove our own probity to ourselves by proving the depravity of those people.”

More broadly, these stories provoke secular Westerners’ condescension toward religious people. Reading many of the American and European blogs about the haredi tensions this winter, Efron has been “stunned” by “the depths of the hatred and the crassness of the arguments. The attacks reflect a toxic mix of old style anti-Semitism and contemporary anti-Zionism, with a new style modern anti-anything-that-is-not-secular-liberal-and-Western added.”

Haredim—and their leaders—are, of course, partly responsible for the broad anger against them. Many lack civic spirit. Few serve in the army. The separation of women often entails inequality. Their politicians exploit Israel’s fragmented coalition-governing system. A culture of lawlessness has grown in many communities, and their holier-than-thou attitude toward fellow citizens rankles.

Nevertheless, even in Bet Shemesh, the town where the haredi men spat on the eight-year-old schoolgirl, the true story is more complex than headlines suggest. “Haredi residents are furious at the recent developments and resent that they are being blamed for the acts of a tiny minority,” the haredi paper, HaModia reported. This doesn’t excuse haredi leaders: In a hierarchical community that grants rabbis so much power, the rabbis must do a better job of restraining the bullies. But as Rabbi Yeshaya Ehrenreich, a member of the Beit Shemesh City Council, told the newspaper, “The haredim who live in the same neighborhoods as these [fringe elements] suffer more than anyone else.”

In Bet Shemesh and elsewhere, the fight often pits ultra-Orthodox against modern Orthodox, not necessarily religious versus secular. Rachel Azaria is a young activist who surprised everyone by winning a seat on Jerusalem’s City Council in the last election. She has fought gender segregation on buses and the banning of female images from bus ads, while working to make the Western Wall welcoming to all visitors and not the world’s largest outdoor haredi synagogue. A religious woman, the mother of three young children, Azaria insists she is not anti-haredi, and that many haredim have encouraged her. “I am the address for haredim,” she explains, “because I am willing to get my hands dirty.” She adds: “I want to affirm to the haredim that they are a part of us—we are all here to stay.”

Statistical projections warning of haredi hordes overwhelming “normal” Israel stoke the media hysteria. But statistical trends are not historical facts. In researching his 2003 book Real Jews: Secular Versus Ultra-Orthodox: The Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel, Professor Efron traced these Chicken Little statistical warnings to the 1960s. “It has become a staple media trope,” Efron says, “with some predicting the tipping point in 10 years time, others seven, sometimes 15. It should have happened in 1970, then again, and again, but never did.” And while demographers insist that now the threat is real, the steady, underpublicized exit from the community may provide the counter that the million-person Russian immigration provided a decade ago. This attrition accounts for the mirror-image standoff. Haredi and non-haredi Israelis both feel embattled, threatened by the other, and abused by the other’s advantages.

This political dynamic, rooted in the 1990s, persists. Most histories of the haredim in Israel emphasize Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s initial deal to exempt a few Torah scholars from military duty. Two other moments were also critical. The counter-revolution of 1977, when Menachem Begin’s Likud broke the Labor Party’s 29-year political monopoly, fragmented the Israeli political market, boosting the haredim. During the 1990s, demagogues in the ultra-Orthodox party Shas and the anti-ultra-Orthodox party Shinui both discovered the political benefits of battling each other. The result has been growing polarization—and a feeling among the haredim that they are a despised minority, whose standing is resented and imperiled.

The recent spate of spats may be a good sign. Constructive reform sometimes begins with seemingly destructive clashes. Rachel Azaria and other activists no longer feel alone. They believe Israelis are now addressing this issue, which requires visionary leadership. The experience of the 1990s suggest that demagoguery and demonization will not help. What’s needed is statesmanship with a soft touch, a rarity in Israel’s dyspeptic political culture. The right accommodation with the haredim will balance values that are frequently in tension for Americans too. It is difficult reconciling majority rule with minority rights, freedom of religion with equality for women, group prerogatives with individual autonomy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could secure a second term with a more solid majority if he produced a new civic covenant between haredim and Israeli society. But Netanyahu will have to stop acting like a Chicago alderman and start acting like a national leader. Rather than tending his coalition above all else, he must take risks. He should leverage the generous subsidies the haredim currently enjoy to force the rabbis to control the bullies and accept more responsibilities as Israeli citizens. Needed reforms include teaching a core curriculum of general subjects in schools that receive state funding, limiting the number of army exemptions, and increasing vocational training. In return, Netanyahu should pass legislation guaranteeing haredim a separate school system and particular exemptions, so their every benefit is not perennially in doubt. And Netanyahu must move all Israelis beyond classical Zionism’s monolithic, tanned, bronzed secular “New Jews” finding unity in uniformity; today’s multicultural Israelis should celebrate diversity while sharing common civic commitments.

Just as particular historical forces shaped this haredi moment, a new covenant can foster a healthier relationship. Israelis await such wise governance, in this realm and many others.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Institute Engaging Israel Fellow.

 

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Gil Troy Quoted in Time: “Israel: A Belly Dance Video and the Spectre of De-legitimization”

By Karl Vic, Time, 10-8-10

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly Cabinet meeting in September

Jim Hollander / AFP / Getty Images

Israel’s latest mortification, now playing on YouTube, features a Palestinian woman, captive, blindfolded and standing stock still in modest Islamic dress while an Israeli soldier undulates against her, trilling his fingers like the belly dancer he pretends to be as he grins at the friend who holds the camera. This follows the infamous Facebook posting of a female soldier beaming beside blindfolded and bound Palestinian men — her prisoners — in the photo album “IDF — The best time of my life.” That came on the heels of a YouTube video of an Israel Defense Force patrol dancing to Kesha’s “Tik Tok” on the streets of Hebron, a West Bank city where the military mission is to protect a handful of Israeli settlers who choose to live in a hostile mostly-Palestinian city.

The dance video at least has charm. But lest there be any confusion about how the world sees these things, the algorithm is about nothing if not context. And the page’s first two “suggestions” for related fare are “Shocking video! Israeli army committing crimes…” and “Israel Soldiers shoots arrested Palestinian.” Originally posted by an Israeli, the Hebron dance line lives on under the title, “It’s easy to laugh at the occupation when you’re the repressor (and a douche bag).”(See pictures of settlements in Israel.)

The hits just keep on coming, and with a relentlessness that lends subtle but persistent urgency to the effort to keep alive the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Even if the sides navigate the obstacle posed by the end of Israel’s moratorium on West Bank settlement construction, the odds of negotiating a solution to the conflict will remain remote. But the alternative is seeing Israel’s international standing corroded one Web post at a time.(See pictures of 60 years of Israel.)

Israelis themselves debate the fairness of this. Some, such as the former Hebron sergeant Yehuda Shaul, say social media simply showcase the moral calluses Israel has built up over the 43 years it has sent young people to occupy Palestinian territory conquered in the 1967 war.(See pictures of heartbreak in the Middle East.)

“You need a peace deal because this is the reality,” says Shaul, who with other West Bank veterans founded a group called Breaking the Silence to show the Israeli public exactly what soldiers do in their name. The group started with a photography show, then published testimonies of soldiers troubled by the abuses they described as routine.

“Social media is a great tool because it doesn’t allow the system to control everything,” says Shaul. “More or less it’s like water: You can find a way to block it, but it’s going to find a way to get out.”(See pictures of life under Hamas in Gaza.)

Others acknowledge the bad behavior of individual soldiers in what proud Israelis still dub “the most moral army in the world.” But they worry about how much is made of individual disgraces. There are some concrete reasons that world sympathy has shifted steadily away from Israel — still the underdog in 1967, when it whipped three Arab armies in six days — and gathered behind the Palestinians. Reason one: the occupation itself.

But other reasons are not so concrete, some say. They are in the air, says McGill University history professor Gil Troy, wafting on currents detectable to the antenna that Jews have developed over thousands of years living with anti-Semitism.

“Israel is the only country whose very existence is still being debated,” he claims. Troy believes Israel is “the only country that still seems to be on probation.” Consider Pakistan, also founded in 1948. But when its chief nuclear scientist sells The Bomb to rogue states, as A.Q. Khan did more than once, “people don’t jump from criticizing that action to questioning why Pakistan was created in the first place,” Troy says.

Many in Israel and its supporters believe the country faces a systematic campaign of “de-legitimization,” accomplished when international support for the Jewish state is diminished to the point where its existence is up for grabs. Indeed fear of Israel’s declining international situation, particularly in the wake of last May’s flotilla fiasco, is taken for granted here as a major factor in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to pursue a final status agreement with the Palestinians, despite decades as a hawk.

The need to nurture U.S. support against Iran was only one reason Netanyahu came around to the Obama administration’s bid for talks, says Troy. “The second is this question of de-legitimization.” And though not all criticism of Israel amounts to opposition to its existence, he says, some “use these Facebook incidents, they use aberrations, they use the flotilla to say: ‘Aha. It’s no good. We should end it.” Meaning Israel, where the middle aged recall being taught as schoolchildren to chant, “The whole world is against us,” with a brave defiance that comes a less easily to adults.

Center Field: Diaspora-Israel relations as bad date

Jerusalem Post, July 27, 2008

The results of the third annual Survey of Contemporary Israeli Attitudes toward World Jewry commissioned by the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem are in, and once again we can proclaim: Israel-Diaspora relations remain less fraternal than we like to believe – and more like a bad date than we really acknowledge. Just as North American Jews are convinced that Israelis need us more than we need them, Israelis believe we need them more than they need us. In this survey, focusing on the Israeli side of the equation, most Israeli Jews – 76 percent – believed it is safer to live as a Jew in Israel than in the Diaspora, while 43 percent believed the State of Israel rather than the local Jewish community was more responsible for fighting anti-Semitic outbreaks in the Diaspora.

These results reveal a condescending Israeli approach to Diaspora Jews as weak, embattled, incapable of self-defense, and dependent on Israeli super-heroes to save them. These attitudes would be more offensive if they were not matched by the too-prevalent Diaspora view of Israelis as weak, embattled, poor cousins needing Diaspora donations – and impassioned letters to the editor – to survive. In fact, both communities are far stronger, more independent, and in some ways more interdependent than most Jews on either side of the Atlantic realize.

Fortunately, the survey uncovered a strong shaft of light bursting forth from this gloom. Nearly half the Israelis surveyed approved of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s recent announcement, shifting Israel-Diaspora policy away from promoting mass Aliyah. Instead, Olmert’s welcome move sought to improve Jewish education in Jewish communities, emphasizing Hebrew, Jewish culture and heritage, Jewish values, and strengthening the links between world Jewry and the State of Israel. This is a marvelous mutual agenda. Aside from Hebrew, which in Israel is thriving, Israeli Jews would also benefit by learning more about their culture, heritage, ethics, and fellow Jews. The failures of the Israeli educational system in most of these areas are as dismaying as the failures of the Diaspora Jewish educational system in these realms.

Prime Minister Olmert was right to first emphasize Hebrew. Hebrew remains the key to Jewish learning, offering entrée to two of the most fundamental Jewish experiences: attending synagogue and visiting the State of Israel. Of course, one can do either without knowing Hebrew, but mastering the language allows Jews to approach prayer in a more knowledgeable fashion and to approach Israel as insiders not outsiders, as brothers and sisters coming home not tourists visiting an exotic locale. It is lamentable that so many of this generation of Diaspora Jews have distanced themselves from Hebrew. Even many of the finest Jewish day schools in North America no longer emphasize Ivrit, fearing that their students will not be able to appreciate Judaism’s relevance if filtered through a “foreign language.” The rest of the world is appreciating the value of knowing multiple language – yet our parents and educators are spurning a great mind-expanding opportunity, fearful that their “bubbelehs” (all of whom during their bar and bat mitzvahs are hailed as geniuses) somehow won’t be able to cope with the second language.

Although the Israeli school system does a good job teaching Hebrew, both the religious and secular schools are far less effective in teaching a love of Judaism. Too much of the religious education emphasizes dos and don’ts rather than whys; too much of the secular system approaches Jewish studies as a laborious requirement to be endured rather than a blessed opportunity to be enriched.

Mutual salvation is possible here. Both Israelis and Diaspora Jews would benefit from a joint Jewish renaissance, a new commitment throughout the Jewish world to learning from each other about our past and our present to guarantee a more dynamic future. In this  — and so many other realms – birthright Israel has shown the way. The program offering free trips to Israel for young Diaspora Jews has a “Mifgash,” requirement, wherein young Israelis – and now, frequently Israeli soldiers – join the trips for a significant part. The initial motivation was to give Diaspora Jews a more authentic link to Israel; most of the Israelis who have participated have ended up experiencing their own reawakening. The Israeli Army Education branch has become an enthusiastic cheerleader for the program, seeing how it makes most Israeli soldiers absorb a keen sense of peoplehood, a newfound love of Judaism, and a deeper understanding that they are not just defending their homes but the Jewish people’s homeland. These successes reinforce Olmert’s essential insight – by taking responsibility for teaching Diaspora Jews, Israeli Jews will jumpstart their own process of becoming responsible and knowledgeable Jews.

Inevitably, much of the energy in developing this new chapter of Israel-Diaspora will focus on formal education – which certainly needs reforming. In the spirit of the Zionist youth movements that helped establish the state, informal education will also get attention. But in order for this renaissance to resonate most broadly, we need to think of a whole other dimension – that of popular culture, perhaps the most influential force in young Jewish lives today, be they in the Diaspora or in Israel.

Recently, I looked for some Hebrew books on Israeli history in a Jerusalem bookstore. “We don’t really have much of a selection,” the saleswoman said. “Really, in Barnes and Noble in New York there are shelves full of American history works for kids,” I replied. “We’re not just that patriotic,” the saleswoman replied with a world-weary sigh, despite being barely 25. This exchange illustrates the formidable challenge we face. We need to learn from American Girl, this extraordinary marketing colossus that has brilliantly fused inspiring stories from America’s past, the contemporary search for some “Girl Power” role models, and the crassest form of commercialism. We need to create a Hebrew-English Jewish Harry Potter, perhaps situated in Temple Times, plumbing the mysteries of Judaism in a delightful, compelling way. We need to mimic Disney, which so cleverly blurs shameless entertainment with education about science, history, geography.

This is not an endorsement of watered-down Judaism, whereby we create a pop Judaism as meaningless as the rest of modern popular culture. Rather, this is a call for an invigorated Jewish atmosphere, in Israel and the Diaspora, that harnesses the power of popular culture to redirect our youth, on both sides of the Atlantic toward meaningful interactions with our profoundly rich civilization. But just as Olmert’s strategy recognizes that we will only see a rise in Aliyah after we have seen a resurgence of education, we will not see that educational resurgence, until we get more young Jews to consider embracing their heritage, their people, their faith as their fundamental anchors in this tempest-tossed and trend-obsessed world.