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Lesser Israel

How Jewish Extremism Threatens Zionism

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.

That is when I objected. “He’s not moving,” I said in Hebrew. I’m not sure what prompted this reaction. Perhaps it was the years of built-up resentment I have felt about the assertive public-square fundamentalism of the haredim, who are trying to turn Jerusalem, a city I adore, into a kind of Jewish Riyadh. Or perhaps it was the fact that on a recent flight to Israel, I had witnessed a haredi man sternly rebuke a female flight attendant for inadvertently, and fleetingly, brushing her arm against his shoulder.

The haredi man in our row was taken aback. “What?” he replied.

I answered, “I don’t tell you how to sit in your synagogue, so don’t try to arrange seating in a public space.”

He became righteous and angry: “If a Muslim asked you to move, you would move!” he said.

“No,” I replied, “I wouldn’t. This is a public gathering. You come to the civic center with everyone; you can’t make it segregated.”

“Why are you so prejudiced?” he asked.

“Why are you so afraid of women?” I shot back.

I may have won this awkward skirmish (which horrified my friends), but as Yuval Elizur and Lawrence Malkin demonstrate in The War Within, the haredim are dominating the larger campaign. Elizur and Malkin write that since the founding of the state in 1948, “the ultra-Orthodox have been allowed to fashion a privileged community that enfolds, protects and isolates its adherents in a bizarre culture with a cloistered and often strangely skewed view of the world.” Israel, the “start-up nation,” of high-tech companies and world-renowned universities, is now also home to an unconscionably large number of state-subsidized rabbis who reject the theory of evolution and believe that teaching mathematics is a sin.

The consequences have been profound: an ever-expanding community of ever more radical fundamentalists has formed into a partisan bloc able to manipulate the Israeli political system even as it makes little effort to hide its contempt for secular democracy. Elizur and Malkin do not adequately explain the risk this poses, which should be made clear: if the numbers and power of the haredim continue to increase, the brightest and most talented secular Israelis -- the descendants of the men and women who actually built the state -- will leave, abandoning the country to the rule of rabbis whose interpretation of Jewish law is pinched, misogynistic, and antediluvian.

David Ben-Gurion, the George Washington of Israel, was a brilliant statesman who understood the value of compromise. But Israel today is haunted by the compromise Ben-Gurion made in 1948 with leaders of what was then a tiny haredi community. Ben-Gurion, motivated in large part by sentiment, granted haredi yeshiva students an exemption from Israel’s universal military draft. There was a certain logic to the exemption: the Holocaust had destroyed most of Europe’s ultra-Orthodox Jews, and the 400 students who received the first exemptions were, in the minds of Israel’s secular leaders, an endangered remnant, people whose beliefs and folkways would soon enough be swamped by modern culture anyway.

But ultra-Orthodoxy, like fundamentalism all across the Middle East, made a comeback. How could it not, when the commandment haredim observe above all others is “Be fruitful and multiply”? They have multiplied very well: although it is hard to pin down the precise number of haredim who lived in Israel at its founding, they likely represented only around one percent of the population. Today, they make up roughly ten percent. And the political parties that represent them have adeptly exploited Israel’s parliamentary system to squeeze subsidies and welfare support from the successive governing coalitions they have joined. Today, at any given moment, roughly 60,000 yeshiva students are allowed to avoid the draft, and many of these students stay in the yeshiva system their whole lives. (The fight over these exemptions is fierce, and it contributed to the breakup of Netanyahu’s last governing coalition.) Only a minority of haredi men are currently employed (the rest study Talmud full time). The result, no surprise, is an immense drain on the country’s resources.

As the haredim have come to play an outsized role in Israeli civic and political life, their rise has abetted the dominance of a different form of Jewish religious extremism: the settlement movement, which is the core of the political faction referred to in the title of Ami Pedahzur’s The Triumph of Israel’s Radical Right. Although they subscribe to distinct visions of Jewish identity, a political alliance between the haredim and Israel’s settlers has shaped decision-making on almost every major foreign and domestic issue the country has faced during the past two decades.

THE BLACK-HAT BRIGADE

The haredim's influence on civic life in Israel can hardly be overstated. The most ostentatious manifestation of their retrograde vision is an intermittent campaign to have public buses segregated by gender. But their influence is even more pernicious and enduring in the spheres of family law and Jewish religious practice. Because of the haredim's influence in the Knesset and in the state-funded rabbinate, Jews who wish to have their marriages recognized by the government cannot use non-Orthodox rabbis, and non-Jews who wish to convert to Judaism under the auspices of non-Orthodox movements cannot do so. (It is a continual, and often losing, struggle to gain recognition in Israel for non-Orthodox conversions performed abroad; although the state says it accepts the conversions, the Orthodox rabbinate does not.)

The haredim hold deep prejudices against modern interpretations of Judaism. This view was perhaps best summed up by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual mentor of Shas (a major ultra-Orthodox political party), who once said that “Reform Jews have no place within Israel. They are a nation apart. We should vomit out these people. . . . They are essentially dead.”

Such contempt is common among the ultra-Orthodox rank and file, and it finds expression in acts of hysterical intolerance, such as the recent verbal and physical attacks by haredim on women seeking to pray as equals at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest site. Even more disturbing than the wrath poured out on these women is the haredim's ability to manipulate the state into doing their bidding. Members of the group Women of the Wall, which seeks to make it legal for women to pray aloud, read from the Torah, and wear religious attire at the wall, have been arrested by the police for simply wearing prayer shawls at the holy site. The haredim insist that such shawls are meant only for men, but some liberal Jews disagree. Official behavior endorsing the Orthodox view is hard to square with the belief held by most Israelis that they live in a nontheocratic representative democracy. This is not the Israel the country’s founders imagined.

Elizur and Malkin do a serviceable job outlining the many ways in which the haredim have succeeded in forcing Israel to underwrite their lifestyle and condone their theological and cultural predispositions. They also argue that it is not too late to reverse the trend. Indeed, the secular Israeli center has begun to object with increasing vehemence to the special dispensations offered to the haredim. In elections in January, many Israelis fed up with the state’s coddling of the ultra-Orthodox voted for Yesh Atid (There Is a Future), the party led by the popular television presenter Yair Lapid, a vocal opponent of draft exemptions for the haredim. Lapid’s party stunned Israel’s political class by capturing almost 15 percent of the vote, coming in second at the polls and forcing Netanyahu to exclude the haredi parties from his new coalition government, in which Lapid now serves as the finance minister. The draft exemption for the haredim was ruled unconstitutional by Israel’s Supreme Court last year, and the army and the Knesset are now searching for ways to increase the number of yeshiva students drafted without upending society.

There are also signs of a loosening of sorts within some haredi communities, motivated in part by simple necessity. Ultra-Orthodox men have begun seeking gainful employment in greater numbers than ever before, because even with government subsidies, many haredi families -- for whom it is not unusual to have as many as ten children -- are finding it difficult to survive. And reformers have arisen within the ranks of the ultra-Orthodox, including rabbis who have demanded that their schools teach secular subjects as well as religious ones.

But such modest steps have not changed the fact that secularists and the haredim appear to be on a collision course. And as Elizur and Malkin warn, “Unless the quarrels between religious and secular extremes are resolved in a spirit of tolerance, the Jewish foundations of the Israeli state will crumble and the state itself risks fragmentation.”

FOR GOD AND COUNTRY

Israel, of course, has always been a high achiever when it comes to existential threats. Most countries cruise through history without facing any such intense perils. Israel, a young country, has already dealt with a few, and it faces several more today. In fact, the rise of the haredim is not even at the top of Israel’s list. That distinction goes to the threat that Israel’s most dire enemy, Iran, might soon develop a nuclear weapon. Israel’s main internal threat, meanwhile, is posed by a different variant of religious extremism: the religious-nationalist ideology that drives the settlement movement. Although centrists and secularists may yet stem the civic influence of the haredim, as Elizur and Malkin contend, it may already be too late to reverse the damage the settlement movement has caused.

That, at least, is what the political scientist Pedahzur argues in The Triumph of Israel’s Radical Right. Intended as a follow-up to the late Israeli political scientist Ehud Sprinzak’s groundbreaking 1991 book, The Ascendance of Israel’s Radical Right, Pedahzur’s book suggests that the religious nationalists have come to dominate Israeli politics so thoroughly that the settlement project has become irreversible and that, therefore, the dream of an equitable two-state solution is dead.

Pedahzur devotes a good deal of his book to retelling a now familiar story. Orthodox Jews were marginal to Israel’s early development, but Israel’s immense victory in its 1967 war against its Arab neighbors, which led to the conquest of the West Bank, was seen by the very religious -- and, to be fair, even by many secularists -- as a sign from God. Many Israelis succumbed to a messianic urge and devoted themselves to the cause of making permanent Israel’s possession of this newly acquired land, which is at the center of Jewish history. Successive governments allowed pioneers, many of them graduates of Orthodox youth movements, to settle in the West Bank, and Menachem Begin’s Likud Party made colonization a priority. Along the way, the religious-nationalist movement co-opted some haredim, building towns in the occupied territories exclusively for their use. This helped create another crucial political constituency for the movement.

Others, including Sprinzak, the journalist Gershom Gorenberg, and the historian Gadi Taub, have told this story before in electrifying books about the settlements and their political and moral consequences. Pedahzur’s book is nowhere near as bracing as those works and sheds little new light on the subject. Still, Pedahzur makes some important points about the methods the settlers and their supporters have used to capture important branches of the Israeli bureaucracy. He tells the stories of such organizations as Elad, which has spent the past several years buying up properties in the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, reportedly with funding from wealthy American donors. Elad’s leaders believe that Jews have a right to live anywhere in greater Jerusalem, but they also know that these pocket settlements will, over time, make it more difficult to cleave Jerusalem in two, thereby blocking the creation of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. They also know that the Palestinians will never agree to a two-state solution without a capital in East Jerusalem.

Pedahzur also details the ways in which the advocates for the settlers have infiltrated key government bureaucracies, making it far easier for Israel, a nation of laws, to circumvent international law. But in his effort to prove that Israel has become wholly illiberal, Pedahzur also puts forward some tendentious arguments. He suggests, for instance, that opposition to illegal immigration from Africa to Israel is motivated by a sort of fascistic tendency among Israelis. It is true that several politicians in Israel have argued against unimpeded immigration in ugly ways. But the immigration debate in Israel is not so different from the one in the United States, and yet I doubt that Pedahzur would condemn Obama as a fascist because he has overseen the deportation of almost 1.5 million undocumented immigrants over the past four years.

Pedahzur had already finished writing this obituary for liberal Israel by the time of Lapid’s surprising success at the polls, which confirmed the existence of a sizable Israeli center that is not ready to cede permanent power to either the haredim or the settlers. Its struggles against religious nationalism and against haredi hegemony are linked -- and leading figures on the right know this. Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s once and possibly future foreign minister and one of the country’s most powerful right-wing revanchists, acknowledged as much when he said in 2008, according to Pedahzur, that “newcomers, residents of development towns” -- a coded reference to Jews of Middle Eastern origin, who tend to support right-wing parties -- “settlers, Chabad Hasidim [followers of the late Lubavitcher rebbe], and the ultra-Orthodox: we are the majority and we will change the division [of power] between the religious and the irreligious.”

FEAR AND TREMBLING

Seated just behind me at Obama’s speech in Jerusalem was a man named Dani Dayan, the former head of the Yesha Council, the governing body of the settlement movement. I was not too busy fuming at my haredi row-mates to notice that Dayan was also fuming, although about something very different. Although he seemed pleased by Obama’s strong defense of the Zionist idea and equally strong condemnation of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he sat scowling, his arms folded, when Obama asked Israelis to imagine what life must be like for the Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation.

Afterward, I asked Dayan what he thought of Obama’s speech. “He wants a two-state solution,” he answered. “He doesn’t know that the two-state solution is dead: dead and buried. And then he tells us we’re occupying our own land. How can we occupy what is ours?” If that were the case, I asked, then why did so many in the audience of 2,000 Israelis cheer Obama’s message of reconciliation and territorial compromise? “They are naive,” he replied. “They are naive about what is important for the future of the state.”

On the contrary: I would argue, as Pedahzur, Elizur, and Malkin undoubtedly would as well, that it is the religious camp -- both its nationalist and its ultra-Orthodox wings -- that is naive about the future. Israel’s strength comes from its democracy and its openness to the world. The haredim want to turn Israel into a Jewish Saudi Arabia. The settlers, if left unimpeded, would turn the country into the Jim Crow South. Each vision is fatally flawed. The only question is, can the Israeli center move the country off these paths? I believe it is not too late. The strong performance of Lapid’s Yesh Atid party supports a notion that many polls, over many years, have shown to be true: a majority of Israelis object to the power of the haredim, and a majority still support a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians, which would lead to the dismantling of many of the most of religiously extreme settlements.

But Pedahzur, along with many left-leaning academics, fails to coherently account for why the settlement movement thrives even though most Israelis support a hypothetical peace agreement that would doom it. Contrary to Pedahzur’s view, the growth of the settlements is not solely the result of a radical right-wing takeover of Israeli politics, and the unsustainable status quo is not solely the result of Jewish chauvinism. Like many left-of-center commentators on the Middle East, Pedahzur rarely acknowledges that it is not irrational for Israelis to question the wisdom of territorial concessions when confronted with the activities of Hamas and Hezbollah (groups that have murdered thousands of Israeli civilians and that most definitely do not seek an equitable two-state solution); the rhetoric and actions of the Iranians; and the weakness of the Palestinian Authority and the venality that its founder, the late Yasir Arafat, demonstrated in prior peace talks. Israel is plagued by fundamentalism, but the country does not exist in a vacuum: extremism is a disease that has infected its whole neighborhood, and the countries surrounding Israel suffer from far worse cases of it. It is true that the Israeli right exploits the public’s fears of those external threats for political gain. But it is also true that from the mainstream Israeli perspective, there is much in the Middle East to legitimately fear.

The trick for the Israelis is to properly balance their fears about such dangers against their fears of threats that originate even closer to home. Although it is not unreasonable to worry what might happen if Israel were to withdraw from large swaths of the West Bank -- the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, which added considerably to Hamas’ power and influence, is an object lesson -- it is also not irrational for Israelis to fear what would happen to their country if it did not withdraw. If Israel were to make permanent its hold over the West Bank, it would either cease to be a democracy (by permanently disenfranchising the Palestinians) or cease to be a “Jewish state” (by granting full citizenship to the Palestinians and thus becoming more like a binational state, one that would stand a chance of quickly devolving into civil war).

It is difficult, on a day-to-day basis, to understand which frightens Israelis more: an Israel without the West Bank or an Israel with it. But it seems clear that the settlement movement and its allies have not yet convinced the majority of Israelis that the right-wing vision of the future -- a majority-Jewish state ruling over disenfranchised Arab cantons -- is the best possible outcome.