Part of The Best of Print in 2013

Lesser Israel

How Jewish Extremism Threatens Zionism

(Marko Djurica / Reuters)

The War Within: Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Threat to Democracy and the Nation. by YUVAL ELIZUR and LAWRENCE MALKIN. Overlook Press, 2013, 224 pp. $26.95.

The Triumph of Israel’s Radical Right. by AMI PEDAHZUR. Oxford University Press, 2012, 296 pp. $29.95.

The highlight of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit in March to Israel -- the highlight, at least, for Obama, although probably not for his host, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- was an emotional speech he delivered to a surprisingly enthusiastic crowd of Israelis at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center. Obama gave an eloquent defense of the dream and promise of Zionism and simultaneously pleaded with Israelis to understand the predicament of the Palestinians.

The audience was made up mostly of college students, who were clearly delighted by the speech. By contrast, the scattering of right-wing Israeli political leaders in attendance appeared rather miserable. They, however, were not the audience members who seemed most out of place. That distinction went to a handful of ultra-Orthodox men, or haredim (Hebrew for “those who tremble before God”), as they are commonly called in Israel.

A couple of these men showed up in my row. They were quite well dressed, which is to say that their black coats and black hats were of a finer quality than one usually sees on the streets of ultra-Orthodox enclaves. I was seated with friends of mine, a married couple: committed secularists, politically liberal, and -- this is important, given what followed -- very genteel, particularly for Israel, where politesse is not a valued trait.

One of the two haredi men in our row found himself seated next to a woman. He appeared agitated by this: haredi men scrupulously avoid any contact with, even close proximity to, women who are not family members. He turned to my male friend and asked to switch seats. Doing so would have moved my friend away from me and away from his wife. But for the sake of shalom bayit (peace at home), my friend -- the compromising sort -- appeared ready to move.

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