What people talk about in Israel seems mostly to be determined by what they saw the evening before on Israel’s only television network. Last October, just before the general elections, people were startled to see, in the center of the TV screen, a man in a long, regal, ottoman robe, a tall turban on his head, and John Belushi–style dark glasses that contrasted with his full silvery beard. He was flanked by motionless men in black, all with black beards. The man in the center started murmuring, and the other men repeated in unison what he said. This was, it turned out, an established ritual performed by the former Sephardic chief rabbi, now the spiritual head of the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party (Shas), which was to do unexpectedly well in the October elections, receiving 6 out of 120 seats in the parliament. On national television, the chief rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, was freeing his devout followers from the holy vows they had previously taken which had bound them to rabbis from rival parties so they could vote for Shas. He was cleansing his followers and cursing his enemies in religious incantation.
For me, and for other secular Israelis who had never before seen anything like this on Israeli television, the TV screen was a Wellesian time machine tuned to a remote medieval station. The producer of the broadcast, Uri Zohar, once the most popular comedian and film director in Israel, a kind of left-wing Jerry Lewis, had some years ago converted to become a born-again Jew and has since become an ultra-Orthodox rabbi. Whatever else he may now do, he is not trying to be funny.
Such religious broadcasts affected the results in the elections; so did the “charisma” of the various rabbis who appealed for votes. But their charisma was exaggerated. It does not by itself explain why the vote for the three ultra-Orthodox parties—Shas, the Aguda, and The Flag of the Torah—has doubled since the last election in 1984, giving the three over 11 percent of the vote. These religious parties got more votes because they have created formidable educational and welfare institutions during the last few years. Their political power is no accident, and the charisma that counts has become, as Max Weber put it, “routinized”: that is, the appeal of these parties derives from their religious role and activities, and not from the personality of one octogenarian rabbi or another.
The election results came as a complete surprise. None of the opinion polls had predicted the strength of the ultra-Orthodox parties. The pollsters had seen the signs of it but had dismissed them as sampling errors. “We didn’t see it because we didn’t know it,” said one of the pollsters, memorably.
The ultra-Orthodox parties together have 13 seats out of 120 in the current Knesset, compared with 6 previously. Since the two major parties, Likud and Labor, have roughly the same strength (40 and 39 seats respectively), the increase in ultra-Orthodox political power raised the possibility that Israel could be governed by a narrow coalition composed of the Likud, the religious parties, and other parties on the right of the Likud—practically all of them committed to Israel’s permanent control of the West Bank. Shamir seemed for a while last autumn to favor such a narrow coalition but he avoided it, for reasons I will discuss later. It nevertheless remains a possibility.
Of the three ultra-Orthodox parties the Sephardic party (Shas), composed almost entirely of Oriental Jews largely from North Africa, won six seats, the Hasidic party (Aguda) five seats, and the Lithuanian party (The Flag of the Torah or Degel Hatorah) has two. Aguda and The Flag of the Torah reflect the division in the Orthodox Jewish community that goes back to the conflict in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe between the emerging popular movement of Hasidism, with its emphasis on ecstatic worship, and Jews of the elitist “Lithuanian” group—so called because of its origins in Vilna and its vicinity—that stressed the traditional scholarly study of the Torah and the Talmud.
In addition to these ultra-Orthodox parties—“ultra” because they oppose virtually everything to do with modern life—two separate religious parties that are Zionist, not ultra-Orthodox, took part in the election. The National Religious party (NRP), the party to which the settlers from Gush Emunim originally belonged, ended up with five seats (one more than in the previous election). The NRP has become intensely nationalistic, exerting pressure on the Shamir government to support more settlements and to tolerate increasing vigilantism. Many Gush Emunim members, however, have broken with the NRP and now work for even more extremist right-wing parties, such as Tehiya (“Rebirth”), which, without quite saying so, favors the expulsion of Palestinians from Greater Israel. A new, small, and dovish modern Orthodox party (Meymad) failed to gain even a single seat in the Knesset.
The success of the ultra-Orthodox parties produced an uproar in the secular press, including cartoons caricaturing the Orthodox Jews that were reminiscent of Der Stürmer. A well-known artist, a sculptor who writes regularly for a popular daily paper, wrote: “When you see [the ultra-Orthodox] you understand why there was a Holocaust and why Jews are hated.” The ultra-Orthodox leaders replied by once more attacking the concept of Zionism, whose goal of a secular Jewish homeland they have always opposed, not only because it prematurely sought the return to the holy land that they believe should be brought about only by the Messiah, but because of Zionism’s practical consequences earlier in the century. In the words of an editorial in Hamodia, the official newspaper of one of the ultra-Orthodox parties, “it was Zionism”—by provoking British restrictions on entry into Palestine—“that prevented many Jews like us from immigrating to the Land of Israel and thus caused their death in the Nazi gas chambers.”
Secular Jews often call the members of ultra-Orthodox groups the “blacks,” referring to the black clothes they habitually wear. In fact, the label “blacks” has undergone several transformations in Israel. When the Likud rose to power in 1977 many of the secular, Ashkenazic Israelis, who derive from Europe, felt that the “blacks,” i.e., the Oriental, or Sephardic, Jews, who made this victory possible by their support for Menachem Begin, had stolen the country from them. Today secular Orientals join the Ashkenazis in their feeling that the religious “blacks” are stealing their country. And Ashkenazis and Orientals alike, in growing numbers feel scorn for, and fear of, the “real blacks”—namely the Palestinian Arabs.
The term “ultra-Orthodox” is misleading. True, these religious groups are particularly fervent in their practice of Orthodox Judaism. But they are different from modern Orthodox Jews—who make up about half of Israel’s approximately 550,000 adult religious Jews—since in addition to rejecting Zionism, they reject practically anything to do with modern life and modern values. The Hebrew expression is not “ultra-Orthodox” but rather “haredim,” which literally means “the tremblers,” a word derived from the verse, “Hear the word of the Lord, ye that tremble at his word” (Isaiah 66:5).
The religious community in Israel is predominantly Orthodox: the very small groups of Reform and Conservative Jews are mostly from the US, and have no influence on Israeli life. The modern Orthodox Jews differ from the ultra-Orthodox in being willing to take part in worldly activities, whether at work or at school or at home, that are not directly related to religion. In the schools to which they send their children, “secular studies,” like science, technology, literature, and history, are taught much as they are in the secular schools. Most modern Orthodox high school graduates seek professional careers, for example in medicine and engineering, rather than religious vocations. In the schools of the ultra-Orthodox, by contrast, young men can pursue only “sacred studies” (although girls are being taught some secular subjects, such as foreign languages and some science—“the wonders of creation”—and literature). Many modern Orthodox students attend the Israeli universities, but ultra-Orthodox ones go only to the rabbinical academies, called yeshivas.
The ultra-Orthodox and the modern Orthodox are roughly equal in their numbers of followers—perhaps between 250,000 and 300,000 adult Israelis belong to each—but they are not equal so far as political power is concerned, since many modern Orthodox vote for the nonreligious parties. Most religious Sephardis who are not ultra-Orthodox, for example, vote for the Likud, and not for the National Religious party.
To say, as the press does, that the elections last fall and winter showed the “rise of religious fundamentalism” in Israel is also misleading if one does not distinguish between biblical fundamentalism, which takes the words of the Old Testament literally, and talmudic fundamentalism, which means observing the Jewish laws covering all aspects of family and public life that have accumulated over 3,000 years. It is a long tradition: according to the Jewish calendar, it is half as old as time. The haredim essentially espouse talmudic fundamentalism, although on occasion they also expound biblical fundamentalism. In one of the broadcasts on behalf of the Sephardic religious party Shas, for example, its leader, a handsome man with Omar Sharif eyes, said excitedly that one simple Sephardic woman kissing the Torah is worth more than fifty professors who say that man evolved from the ape. In the same vein, a haredi member of the Knesset tried, some months ago, to prevent the award by the Israeli parliament of the prestigious Wolf Prize in physics to Stephen Hawking because his big-bang theory contradicts Genesis.
But the most important characteristic of the haredim is halakhic fundamentalism, which holds that in private and communal matters Jews must follow the views of recognized authorities on the Halakha, i.e., the ritual law and civil law contained in the rabbinic literature, as well as the decrees, ordinances, customs, and mores that were not canonized, and were therefore transmitted mainly through oral tradition.
To follow Halakha strictly is to have religion intervene in every aspect of human life, including the most private and the most trivial. Instructions are provided for everything from putting on one’s shoes in the morning (first left, then right) to performing the highly important ritual of phylacteries (tefilin), the two small black boxes containing scriptural passages that are attached to leather strips that one winds around the left hand and the head, and wears during morning services, as a reminder of God’s unity (much as a young man in love will tie a woman’s handkerchief around his wrist to be reminded of her). A ritual hand washing and a benediction must take place before one eats a piece of bread, and another blessing must be said afterward.
Hardly any of the actions one takes can be “spontaneous”; they are all mediated by regulations. The justification for such pervasive religious intervention in everyday life is the Halakha, as interpreted by the rabbinical authorities of the day. Its purpose is to create a holy community, and this, according to the biblical covenant, is the vocation of the Jewish people in the world. The source of the authority for Halakha itself is, in some sense, God or revelation; but in what sense and with what relation to the sacred Scripture are matters of extensive debate.
Various Israeli ultra-Orthodox groups, moreover, complicate the halakhic regulations by adding their own restrictions. The Hasidic Rabbi of Gur, who carries on the traditions of a long line of rabbis from the Polish town of Gur, for example, has issued a set of thirty-nine restrictive rules concerning conjugal sexual relations. They prohibit the man from kissing the body of the woman and require that the bedroom be completely dark and that the couple be covered by a blanket from head to toe.1 These regulations were in fact sharply criticized by one of the more venerable rabbinical authorities, the “Stapler” rabbi, who condemned any man who does not try to satisfy his wife sexually. On the whole the ultra-Orthodox are obsessed with sexual morality. Little girls are taught from an early age that they are dangerous sexual objects. They are prohibited, for example, from singing in front of anyone except the immediate members of their family, because even their voices are considered sexual organs.
What is the attraction of the ultra-Orthodox way of life, especially for the secular Israelis who are “born again” and join one of the ultra-Orthodox groups as adults? Part of the appeal is the absolute clarity regarding what is allowed and what is forbidden. Members of the ultra-Orthodox groups are at least partly released from having to make the decisions that are such a source of anxiety for the rest of us. Marriages are largely fixed by marriage brokers; apart from a rabbinical vocation no secular jobs have high status and there are no “careers” that are approved of. Even such decisions as whether or not have an operation and which doctor to go to are referred to the rabbi. To live in a world so dense with rules and obligations can give one a sense of purpose: the ultra-Orthodox believe that by their efforts to follow Halakha they are helping to establish a holy community.
The ultra-Orthodox communities themselves are closed and protected worlds that give their members a feeling of belonging, a sense that they are among people who look after one another. The ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to cluster together in the religious neighborhoods in Israel’s cities, although a few live in enclaves cut off from the rest of the haredi community. When family members become sick or die, or in other times of crisis, one is never alone. The modern habit of ceaseless shopping is frowned on, and conspicuous consumption is forbidden. Some communities impose restrictions on the size of apartments, and on how much can be spent to improve the bathrooms and kitchens. On the other hand, the ultra-Orthodox are willing to pay for an impressively organized social welfare system in which neither the sick nor the orphaned have to worry about being cared for.
Another source of attraction of the haredi life, and not necessarily for intellectuals, is the study of classical rabbinical texts, whether in small groups or in formal classes or individual readings. The problems dealt with in these sessions are much like legal case studies. For example, how to divide a prayer shawl between two claimants, one of whom claims all of it and the other only half; this leads to discussions of complicated problems of distributive justice.
If the life of the devout as I have described it sounds like a communitarian paradise, from a secular, individualistic perspective it may seem a kind of hell, in which the warmth and sense of community of the ultra-Orthodox way of life become oppressive meddling. There is little respect for privacy or for distinctive individual activity among the ultra-Orthodox. The person who is different, or deviant, risks bigotry and harassment.
The bonds of communal life are further strengthened by the deep loyalty and affection accorded the spiritual leader. The underside of such feeling is unrelenting hatred between rival religious communities and their leaders, particularly between the Hasidic Jews who support the Aguda party and the other ultra-Orthodox groups. The hatred can turn to violence, but it is usually expressed on walls and billboards, in the Chinese style. Indeed it was these communal rivalries, more than animosity toward the secular parties, that impelled the differing ultra-Orthodox political groups to campaign all the more energetically in the recent elections and to come out to vote in greater numbers.
Since in the Jewish view religion concerns not just a person’s conduct but the life of the community, the ultra-Orthodox want to mold all public life in Israel in such a way as not to violate Halakha. This means closing down not only all public transportation and all businesses on the Sabbath, but all forms of entertainment, including television, as well.
The two main factions of the haredi community—the Hasidic and the Lithuanian—are both equally committed to Halakha. Originating in Eastern Europe among Ashkenazic Jews, both factions in Israel now include Sephardic Jews as well. However, very few Sephardim have been drawn to Hasidism: most of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardis accept the religious authority of Lithuanian leaders.
The Hasidim derive from the popular pietist movement founded in Eastern Europe during the eighteenth century in opposition to the conventional practice of restricting talmudic learning to a relatively small elite. It emphasized the importance of religious devotion and intense prayer by all Jews in the community. The early egalitarianism of the movement soon gave way to more authoritarian practices. Today the Hasidic communities in Israel and elsewhere (for instance Brooklyn or Antwerp) are each organized around the figure of the zaddik, traditionally referred to by the acronym admor (standing for “our lord, teacher, and master”), who is the apex of a Hasidic court community of elders and scholars, men thought to be particularly wise and devout. The admor is perceived as endowed with a special spiritual power enabling him to communicate with the divine more directly and effectively than others in the community of believers. He thus functions as a mediator between his community and God.
The central value of religious life for the Hasidim is that of Devekuth, or being one with God. This attachment is not predominantly intellectual, but instead stresses inner feelings, as typically expressed in ecstatic prayer, which, to the Hasidim, is a higher expression of the authentic religious life than the study of the Torah and Talmud. The various Hasidic courts give different weight to the study of sacred texts, on the one hand, and, on the other, to the attainment of supreme religious experience; but they all place less emphasis on Torah study than the Lithuanians do. The Hasidic admor, his court, and the community are conceived as a single organic entity, and the yeshiva school for studying the Torah and Talmud is only one of its components.
Of the many Hasidic admors some are grand old men in rags, who lost their congregations in the Holocaust. But the two most important in Israeli politics are the admor of Gur, who is old and ill, but in charge of a large and obedient Hasidic community that lives mostly in Jerusalem and Bnei-Brak, and the eighty-seven-year-old admor of Lubavitch, Menachem Schneerson, the head of an international group of perhaps 100,000 Jews or more based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where he lives. From there millions of dollars have been sent to support the Lubavitch community in Israel. (The name derives from the village in Russia where the sect originated.) Schneerson’s influence on the last Israeli general elections became notorious when it was reported that he had instructed his followers in various European cities who hold Israeli passports to return to Israel to vote for the Hasidic Aguda and offered to pay their way. The Lubavitchers believe that the “Greater Land of Israel” must stay in Israeli hands.
The other main Ashkenazic haredi community, the Lithuanians, derive their name from the fact that the opposition to the growing Hasidic movement in Eastern Europe during the eighteenth century arose in Lithuania, where the towering figure of Rabbi Elijah ben-Solomon, the Gaon (genius) of Vilna, became the most formidable critic of Hasidism. Traditionally, the enemies of the Hasidim were referred to as the Opponents (Mitnaggedim). However, since the rivalry has somewhat slackened, the more neutral word “Lithuanians” is now more widely used.
The central value in the religious life of the Lithuanians is the study of the Torah and Talmud, and the vast literature of exegesis that has accumulated over many generations. Unmarried men study at the yeshiva, married men at the kolel. The entire community devotes itself to maintaining these institutions and supporting the men attending them, who are supposed to remain fully absorbed in their task. The talmid chacham—the rabbinic scholar who excels in his studies—is at the top of the Lithuanian social hierarchy and enjoys the highest prestige. This position may bring material benefits, especially in marriage. The promising rabbinic scholar has a good chance of marrying the daughter of a well-to-do family, which then supports the couple while he continues his studies. In less affluent Lithuanian families, it is often the wife who must make a living for the family, and it is always the wife who shoulders the entire burden of housekeeping and raising children.
Usually there are many children. Haredi couples, whether Lithuanian or Hasidic, marry early: 70 percent of the women marry before they are twenty (90 percent before twenty-two); 90 percent of the men marry before twenty-four, and they are subject to the commandment to procreate.2 Women are brought up to prepare themselves for the task of serving their scholar husbands. The wife’s sacrifice is considerable, since her husband is away from home at his studies all day, and it is not uncommon for haredi families to have from six to ten children.
The leaders of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community are selected entirely according to their distinction in religious study. Thus the head of the largest and most prestigious Lithuanian yeshiva, the ninety-two-year-old Rabbi Eliezer Shach, is also the leader of all the Israeli Lithuanians—even when it comes to questions such as whether the party representing the Lithuanian community should join a coalition government, and under what conditions. His authority is strengthened by the fact that most of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jews also regard him as their spiritual leader, together with their Sephardic Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. This means that the leaders of both the Ashkenazic Lithuanian party, The Flag of the Torah, and the Sephardic party Shas, obey Rabbi Shach’s orders. The Lithuanians’ attitude toward the state of Israel derives from their faith in the Torah: for them, the secular Zionist state is based on heresy. However, over the years they have moderated their criticism, and, while remaining anti-Zionist, they now support the government in return for generous subsidies for their educational institutions.
The recent elections revived the historic rivalry between the Hasidim and the Lithuanians. The longstanding and implacable hostility between the Hasidic admor of Lubavitch and the Lithuanian leader, Shach, caused the followers of each patriarch—Schneerson’s followers in the Aguda party and Shach’s in The Flag of the Torah and Shas parties—to denounce the other’s bitterly. Shach suspects, rightly, that the Lubavitcher rebbe has messianic aspirations—that he might encourage his followers to see him as the divine redeemer of Israel and the world. He sees in him a potential danger similar to the threat posed to the Jews in the seventeenth century by the false messiah Shabbetai Zevi.
Each of the two Ashkenazic haredi communities has developed impressive institutions in Jerusalem, Bnei-Brak (near Tel Aviv), and other cities. These include an educational system, subsidized housing, and elaborate arrangements for matchmaking, for celebrating family and communal events, for funeral services, for providing kosher food, and much more. The social structure of both communities resembles that of institutional feudalism without a feudal bureaucracy; but the members of the Hasidic communities are much more like serfs than are those in the Lithuanian sects.
The large haredi families have a low standard of living, contrary to the fantasy of some secular Israelis that they are enormously rich. The overwhelmingly religious nature of their education does not prepare most of them to hold even modestly paying jobs, and the haredi male tends to enter the job market relatively late, if at all. Still, the haredi welfare and other services I have mentioned are more expensive than those provided by the richest secular communities. They are made possible by an efficient system of soliciting voluntary contributions, especially from Jews abroad, which amounts to a tax to redistribute wealth to the poor. In recent years the haredi communities have, by sophisticated political lobbying, won an increasing share of support from the state in the form of subsidies and tax breaks. Here haredi society, otherwise so self-sufficient, impinges politically on the rest of Israel.
Until recently, the most striking aspect of the haredi for most secular Israelis has been the spectacle of people determined to carry on the pre-Enlightenment life of East European Jewish communities of the eighteenth century and earlier, whether in the somber clothes that they wear, or the Yiddish they use in everyday speech, or in their efforts to impose on the entire country laws restricting activity on the Sabbath. Lately, however, the quite different groups of ultra-Orthodox Sephardic have become highly visible for the first time.
The Sephardic haredi community originated in the great waves of immigration to Israel from North African and other Arab countries during the 1950s and 1960s. Many of these families, clinging to their own Orthodox culture, shunned the secularism of the Israeli educational system and instead enrolled their children in the existing ultra-Orthodox educational institutions. These institutions exercised so great an influence over their children that some grotesquely adopted Eastern European manners, including a Yiddish pronunciation of many Hebrew expressions. As these Sephardic children have grown up under the influence of Ashkenazic Orthodoxy, the Sephardic religious community in Israel has undergone a transformation. It is becoming more fanatical and more concerned with setting religious standards, such as imposing strict rules for the behavior of young women. It is becoming less like the traditional Sephardic Jews from cities like Fez, who tend to be fairly easygoing about customs and doctrinal matters, and more like Eastern European Jews, who have traditionally tended more toward religious fanaticism during their long war against the Enlightenment.
The emergence of Sephardic ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel must thus be seen as part of the reconstruction of the European Ashkenazic ultra-Orthodox communities after the Holocaust. The wretched survivors of these communities, who arrived in Israel during and after the war, were in no condition to undergo a rebirth and renewal. During the 1950s, fewer than two thousand students were enrolled in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas in Israel: the community was thought of as old and dying. At that time, in 1952, a famous “summit meeting” took place between David Ben-Gurion, the political leader of secular Israel, and Rabbi Karelitz (known as the “Hazon Ish”), the highest rabbinical authority of the time and the spiritual leader of the Lithuanian community. In the eyes of the Orthodox, this meeting assumed cosmic significance, somewhat resembling the legendary meeting, reported in the Talmud, between Alexander the Great and the High Priest Shimon the Zaddik. Discussing the clash between secular and religious communities in Israel, the rabbi is reported to have told Ben-Gurion that when two carts meet head-on on a narrow bridge, clearly the empty one should give the right of way to the laden one—“laden” referred here to Jewish tradition, “empty” to the secular who have thrown the load off their cart.
As the years went by, many of the older Israeli Zionists of Ben-Gurion’s generation, who in their youth had rebelled against their tradition and their religious past, and had become thoroughly secular, started to feel that the cart they were riding in was indeed empty. This generation proved particularly vulnerable to pressure from the religious community to be “more Jewish.” They did not themselves become Orthodox but they were willing to be more tolerant of the rabbis, conceding, as some put it, that “a little bit of Yiddishkeit will do no harm.” The religious community at that time seemed tame, more an object of nostalgia than a threat. In 1978 the government of Menachem Begin made its largest concession to the rabbis when it agreed to a wholesale exemption of yeshiva students from military service.
To be exempt from military service in Israel is a serious matter. No society, perhaps in all history, has imposed on its citizens a longer compulsory military service: at least three years’ regular service for men (it is usually extended), and two for women, and then a month or more per year of reserve duty for men up to the age of fifty-five—not counting the more extensive periods of active service during Israel’s five major wars including the intifada. The draft exemption is not the only cause of the growth of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, but it is an important one. During the years after it was adopted the number of yeshiva students increased dramatically. Today there are more of them in Israel—estimated at between 30,000 and 40,000—than there ever were in Eastern Europe.
During the Sixties and Seventies not only did the yeshivas significantly increase their recruits but entire Hasidic dynasties, which had lost almost all their members in Europe, were revived. As they expanded, the yeshivas, mainly the Lithuanian ones, began to absorb boys of Oriental extraction, especially from families in the poor ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. The more gifted Oriental boys were drawn to the yeshiva world not only because it offered them a prestigious way to carry on studies while exempt from the draft but also because their own communities, unlike those of the Eastern European Zionists, retained a favorable view of religious tradition. In this way a haredi elite began to form among the Sephardis, who adopted the Lithuanian rabbis as their rabbinical authority.
The Sephardis, however, were ambivalent toward the Ashkenazic type of ultra-Orthodoxy that was expressed in the Lithuanian yeshivas. Many Sephardis felt humiliated because they were usually considered second-rate students, less sharp-witted than the Lithuanians; but they developed virtually unbounded admiration for the great masters of Halakha who headed the yeshivas. The insults by Ashkenazis were particularly resented when it came to politics. Sephardis felt ignored by the Ashkenazic leaders in the strongest haredi political party, the Aguda, which was then controlled by a combination of Hasidic and Lithuanian leaders who allowed them no representation. They decided to act. With the blessing of the Lithuanian Rabbi Shach they formed, in 1984, their own political party, Shas, and did well in the elections that year, gaining three seats in the Knesset. Thus Sephardic ultra-Orthodoxy became a political force in Israeli society.
The increasing numbers of Sephardic ultra-Orthodox became evident in the 1988 elections, when Shas won 4.7 percent of the vote, largely as a result of the Shas party’s diligent efforts to create the network of communal institutions it calls To the Fountain (El Hama’ayan); this provides needy Sephardic families with free comprehensive education and social welfare service, and most of its costs are covered by the state.
Not all the ultra-Orthodox Sephardim, however, have joined forces with the Lithuanians. Consider, for example, a Sephardic zaddik, the son of the late Abu-Hazira, a holy man of the North African community, who was once a notorious criminal and now thrives on selling expensive bottles of “holy” water to barren women. He has joined the Aguda party of the Lubavitcher Hasidim, whom the Lithuanians detest, in the hope that he could establish under their auspices a regal Hasidic court at the palace he recently built for himself in a backward township in the Negev desert. Both Shamir and Peres made a pilgrimage there before the elections in the hope of ingratiating themselves with a part of the North African community, but without success. The alignment between the Sephardic practitioner of black magic and the Lubavitcher Hasidim held fast.
One more ultra-Orthodox community needs to be mentioned—the ultra-ultra-Orthodox community, which traditionally rejects all forms of participation in the Israeli political system, and still rejects the state of Israel as sinful and heretical. This is the so-called Haredi Congregation, which boycotts the state, its elections, and some of its monetary benefits (such as monthly checks for child allowance paid by the national insurance). The other-worldly religious standards of the Haredi Congregation once had a considerable influence, especially in making the ultra-Orthodox groups that take part in politics defensive about their own degree of religious purity. Today, however, this extremist community is in decline, mainly because its increasing willingness to accept state funds has dulled its moral authority. The Haredi Congregation is concentrated mainly in ghettolike neighborhoods (in Meah Shearim) and Bnei-Brak, and it consists of two groups: “Jerusalemites”—those who have lived in Jerusalem for many generations—and a few Hasidic groups, the most important of which is the Satmar community (which originated in Romania, moved to Hungary, and today has its center in Williamsburg, Brooklyn).
The Haredi Congregation also includes the militant Hasidic community of Toldot Aaron, which has been the main force behind the so-called Sabbath Wars, the violent attempts to close theaters and other entertainments on the Sabbath, and the much-publicized demonstrations against the archaeologists working to uncover the foundations of the City of David. The phenomenon of children throwing stones did not begin with the intifada, but with haredi children stoning cars driving on the Sabbath. Those in Israel now calling for shooting Palestinian children who throw stones, arguing that the stones are deadly weapons, would of course never dare to propose shooting the haredi children. They are, after all, Jewish, and in Israel this is the difference that makes the difference.
All factions of haredim reject modern life. This is one of its main conflicts with the Zionist movement, since Zionism was in essence a Jewish response to modern ways of thinking and living, and its leaders emphasized both their secularism and their commitments to science and political nationalism. Zionism claimed to provide an alternative to assimilation and to the loss of Jewish identity, while, at the same time, enabling the Jews to emerge from the ghetto and to live free of religious restriction. To the ultra-Orthodox, by contrast, secularism, political nationalism, and to a certain extent science, too, are a direct threat to the religious way of life.
Nor can the ultra-Orthodox accept Zionism so long as the central political authority in Israel is not subject to the Halakha but presumes to replace it. Secular education offends them because it threatens the traditional institutions of Torah study. Even such basic assumptions of modern life as the claim of moral autonomy for the individual are unacceptable to them because ultra-Orthodox society is predicated upon the authority of tradition and of the Halakha. The ultra-Orthodox see a deep connection between the evils of modernism and the clothes people wear, and for them an especially weighty cause is the struggle against modern women’s fashions. Recently the ultra-Orthodox have been claiming that secular modern life is responsible for the drug problem, and that every member of modern society is a potential drug addict. This view attracts adherents in the Sephardic neighborhoods in Israel, where drug addiction is a problem. In these neighborhoods, one could say religion comes between opium and the people.
The ultra-Orthodox tend to speak dismissively of the National Religious party which has undergone many transformations. Up until the June 1967 war its religiosity had no special intensity and was entirely compatible with conventional bourgeois life. In matters of foreign policy, it was moderate. During the 1950s they objected, for example, to some of the military raids into Jordan and the Sinai that were ordered by Ben-Gurion. After 1967 its younger members became more and more intense about religious observance and at the same time increasingly nationalistic. Following the dramatic October war of 1973, the group known as Gush Emunim was formed within the party and became the avantgarde of the settlers.
Gush Emunim numbers about 5,000 settlers, who are popular among the students in Israel’s religious high schools and modern yeshivas. Its leaders and principal activists are for the most part graduates of the Merkaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem, dominated by the spiritual influence of the late Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. Gush Emunim differs crucially from the ultra-Orthodox in giving strong religious significance both to the history of the conflict over the land of Israel and to the occupied territories. The theology of Gush Emunim is one of messianism without a messiah. Its followers believe that history is inexorably moving toward messianic days, or a state of redemption, even though their scheme ignores the persona of the messiah himself. The founding of the state of Israel in 1948, and the conquest of the historic parts of the Land of Israel in 1967, are for them events of the utmost religious importance, since they reveal the overall divine scheme of redemption.
However, Gush Emunim is better understood as a political and not as a religious phenomenon. In the Israeli political spectrum its members occupy the ultra-right-wing position (after all, they organized and defended the terrorist Jewish underground exposed several years ago), while at the same time they have no close relations with the ultra-Orthodox camp.
The younger generation in the National Religious party itself, however, have started to become closer to the ultra-Orthodox in religious matters. Some of the young men are attending haredi-style yeshivas and many married women are covering their heads. Yet, in spite of their growing religious extremism, they also want to show that they can deal with modern life, and they make a point of combining Orthodox religious practices with knowledge of science. In their TV broadcasts during the election, the NRP took care to show their youngsters wearing knitted yarmulkas and sitting by computer consoles. The ultra-Orthodox show them in black hats, blowing the shofar.
When Begin came to power in 1977 the NRP had twelve seats in the Knesset, the most it has ever received, and the party became part of Begin’s coalition government. Today, it has only five members. The total number of religious party deputies has thus not changed much from election to election, but the NRP has lost while the ultra-Orthodox camp has gained.
The religious parties, whether modern or ultra-Orthodox, oppose any manifestation of Jewish religious pluralism in Israel. They want complete monopoly of Orthodoxy over all religious life in Israel, and they are still determined to push through the Knesset the notorious law by which the only converts who can qualify as Jews under the Law of Return are those who have undergone Orthodox conversion. This is the infamous “Who-Is-a-Jew” law, whose purpose, in effect, is to deprive the Conservative and Reform denominations of Judaism of their legitimacy.
The same proposed law was an important factor in Shamir’s decision last autumn to form a broad coalition government with Labor, rather than a narrow government with the religious parties, although for a while he misled the religious parties into thinking they could be part of a narrow coalition. Were Shamir to yield to the pressure from the religious parties and to commit himself to passing the law they wanted, he feared that he would antagonize Israel’s Jewish supporters in the US. He believes that the organized American Jewish community in the US will swallow just about every toad he might feed it—except for a law that the American Jews feel will undermine their legitimacy as Jews.
The religious parties are not satisfied just with the monopoly they have over marriage and divorce among Jews. In order to show that the state has no authority over Halakha, they now want to abolish the right of citizens to appeal to the Supreme Court regarding decisions of the rabbinical courts. Abolishing the appeals would be a far-reaching step toward undermining the legitimacy of both the judiciary and the legislature in Israel.
Very little can be expected of the ultra-Orthodox politics with respect to a peace settlement with the Palestinians. The haredi community, as I have emphasized, is concentrated around their communal institutions, especially their yeshivas and other institutions of learning, and this basic fact determines the character of haredi politics. Their highest priority is to ensure the flow of state funds to build up and maintain their own institutions; national political questions are of secondary importance. That is why the haredim will always try to find a place in the ruling coalition—the best way to obtain money. And the Likud will always be able to offer them more than Labor can.
In order to form a coalition of its own, Labor needs—in addition to at least some of the religious parties—the support of the small parties on the left. And these are not willing to pay a high price in order to take part in a coalition with the religious parties, Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox. “For the sake of peace I’m willing to wear a streimel” (the Hasidic fur hat), the maverick politician Ezer Weizman joked during the coalition negotiations. That is, in order to gain the support of the religious parties, he is willing to pay nearly any price. However, Shulamit Aloni, the militant secular leader of the Civil Rights party, would never say she is willing to wear a sheitel—the head covering of the haredi women—partly because she doubts a coalition with the religious parties will improve the prospects of peace.
Likud has traditionally taken a more favorable view of religion than Labor, and it is freer of the strong secular commitments that have always characterized the Labor party. In principle, only Likud could form a narrow coalition with both the religious parties and with the extreme right. This is the basic premise of Israeli politics—though not a premise for Shimon Peres—and this is what makes Likud the ruling party. Because it knows that the Likud can form a narrow coalition government if it wants to, Labor has agreed to be the Likud’s junior partner.
Toward Palestinians, all the religious parties share roughly the same cast of mind. They see Arabs in general, and the Palestinians in particular, as wholly alien—goys who are particularly menacing because of their proximity. When it comes to formulated political opinions, however, the Lithuanians of The Flag of the Torah are doves. Not only the spiritual and political leaders of the party but the Lithuanian voters as well say they are willing to exchange land for peace. But they have only two seats in the Knesset, and their attitude must be understood as reflecting prudence rather than a moral position. Zionism for them means a commitment to territorial greed and military adventurism that can only bring harm to the Jews, and it sharply contrasts with their own ascetic idea of Judaism as based on study of the Torah.
Unlike the nationalists of the NRP, they have no interest in the Greater Israel, and indeed they fear that claims to more land will provoke hostility among the nations of the world. Their anti-Zionism has therefore encouraged their political moderation. However, in spite of all this, they believe their schools and other institutions must come first; their responsibility to the rest of the Israeli society is of secondary, if not of marginal, importance. This is why, if the price is right, they are willing to join a right-wing nationalist government.
Shas, the Sephardic haredi party, is divided in political matters. Its spiritual leaders tend to have political views close to those of the Lithuanians. However, Shas voters, many of whom still have the feelings of hostility to Arabs characteristic of North African Jews, tend to favor the positions of the Likud, particularly those of Ariel Sharon, and in some cases the extreme views of Rabbi Kahane, whose main followers are poor young Sephardis and who has no support from any of the haredi leaders. Shas continues to defer to the spiritual authority of the Lithuanian Rabbi Shach—the same rabbi who, at the time of the Lebanon war, referred to General Sharon as a “rodef,” i.e., a wanton murderer who under talmudic law could legitimately be killed without trial. Still, in view of the political feelings of its constituents, Shas will not break its political ties with Sharon.
In the coalition government, one of the two members from Shas is the minister of the interior, Rabbi Arieh Deri, the youngest, and perhaps the most intelligent, of the current ministers. Recently, Deri, together with the Sephardic leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, was invited by President Mubarak to visit Egypt. They told their host that saving Jewish lives took precedence over the commandment of holding onto Greater Israel. Deri is certainly someone to watch in the coming months, or years. Perhaps if there is a change in the deadlock of Israeli politics, it will come from him.
As for the Hasidic ultra-Orthodox party, the Aguda, its views, heavily influenced by those of the Brooklyn Lubavitcher rebbe, are those of the extreme right wing. In Israel this means not only a commitment to holding onto all of Greater Israel, but a willingness to enter into a direct and explicit conflict with the US over doing so. The more “moderate” right wingers in the Aguda are those who, despite their commitment to the Greater Israel, will do anything to avoid a confrontation with the American administration. For them too, however, the primary aim of the party is to increase the prosperity of the Hasidic communities that support the Aguda. So the Aguda too extracts the highest possible price for supporting the Likud, and, although it is still angry with Shamir for bluffing during the coalition negotiations, it will stick with him.
The politics of the NRP come down to biblical nationalism. Most of its leaders nowadays are extreme right-wing (although some are more moderate), and its constituency is by and large extremist. Ideologically its supporters favor the idea of “the unity of the nation”; that is, given the chance, they would favor a broad, national-unity coalition government over a narrow coalition, even a right-wing one.
Currently, the only chance for movement toward peace in the Middle East is President Mubarak’s proposal to have the Israelis and the Palestinians meet in Cairo for preliminary negotiations. The Palestinian delegation would include, in addition to representatives from the occupied territories, two Palestinians who were expelled by Israel and who are members of the PLO. Shamir objects to their being included, Rabin accepts it. Labor was made official in the Cabinet decision of October 6 to turn down Labor’s suggestion that Israel accept Mubarak’s invitation to court. This disagreement between the Likud and the Cabinet decision has once again raised the possibility of a narrow government headed by Labor and shared with the religious parties.
To form such a coalition Labor would have to yield to all the demands of the religious parties in matters of religious law, and additional funds, in exchange for support of a political settlement with the Palestinians: a government of Strimen and peace. The chances for such a development are, I believe, extremely small. In the end, what is unacceptable to Shamir will not come to pass. However, what would be acceptable to Shamir depends to a considerable extent on what Bush and Baker tell him he has to accept. The catch, unfortunately, is that what Baker and Bush will tell Shamir to accept depends to a considerable extent on what they believe Shamir is willing to accept.
—October 12, 1989
November 9, 1989