The Secular Sky Is Falling!

(This essay appeared in Haaretz this week, under a different title.)

Well, it won’t be long now before Israel institutes penalties for watching television on the Sabbath and declares a religious war against the Palestinians. At least that’s what a cursory – or, actually, even a careful – reading of a recent New York Times op-ed might lead one to conclude.

In the piece, Abbas Milani, the head of the Iranian studies program at Stanford University, and Israel Waismel-Manor, a University of Haifa senior lecturer, argue that Iran and Israel might be “trading places,” the former easing into a more secular mode, the latter slouching toward theocracy.

Whether the writers’ take on Iran has any merit isn’t known to me. But their take on Israel is risible, and the evidence they summon shows how clueless even academics can be.

The opinionators contend that the “nonreligious Zionism” advanced by David Ben-Gurion in the 1950s is “under threat” today by “Orthodox parties” that “aspire to transform Israel into a theocracy.”

The irony is intriguing. It was none other than Ben-Gurion who pledged, in a 1947 agreement with the Agudath Israel World Organization, representing Haredi Jews, to do “everything possible” to promote a single standard, that of halacha, or Jewish religious law, with regard to “personal status” issues like marriage, divorce and conversion; to designate the Jewish Sabbath as the new state’s official day of rest; to provide only kosher food in government kitchens; and to endorse a religious educational system as an alternative to Israeli state public schools. Those concessions, which pretty much sum up Israel’s accommodation of religion, were seen as inherent to its claim to be a “Jewish State.”

The impression Messrs. Milani and Waismel-Manor seek to promote is that there has been some sort of sea change of late in the Haredi community’s influence and designs. The writers, like other “the secular sky is falling” oracles, point to demographics (the Haredi community considers children to be great blessings) and the rise of Haredi political parties (although they are not currently part of the government coalition and always at the mercy of the larger parties) as evidence.

But a closer look at recent religious controversies in Israel, whether the drafting of Haredi men, traditional prayer standards at the Western Wall, conversion standards or subsidies for religious students, reveals that Haredi activism, such as it is, is aimed entirely at preserving the “religious status quo” of the past six decades, not at intensifying the state’s restrained connection to Judaism – much less at creating a “theocracy.” Some outside the Haredi community feel that the religious status quo is outdated and needs to be changed. But Haredi political activism is limited to pushback against that cause; it does not aim to impose Jewish observance on any Israeli.

And on the infrequent occasions when individuals have sought to expand real or imagined religious values in the public sphere – like imposing separate seating for men and women on selected bus lines servicing religious neighborhoods – Israel’s courts have stepped in and conclusively quashed the attempts. (Separate seating on those limited lines remains voluntary, and anyone seeking to force it is subject to prosecution.) And when religious vigilantes have been reported to have done ugly things (see: Beit Shemesh), the reported actions have been broadly condemned, and have ceased. Messrs. Milani and Waismel-Manor presumably know that there have been no moves in Israel to compel synagogue attendance or to cut off criminals’ body parts, sharia-style.

They get totally wrong, too, what they describe as “the vast majority of Orthodox Jews” who they contend are “against any agreement with the Palestinians,” further contributing to the writers’ feverish imagination of (excuse the expression) Armageddon.

There are many, to be sure, in the “national religious” camp who agitate for annexation of the West Bank and shun the idea of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. (The New York Times op-ed authors quite erroneously conflated this community, represented in Israel’s government by Habayit Hayehudi, with the Haredim, despite their distinctly different religious, political and cultural positions.

But the vast majority of Haredim are famously deferent to their religious leaders, many of whom have maintained for decades that that land may, indeed should, be ceded in exchange for a meaningful peace with trustworthy adversaries of good will. The current Haredi (and much non-Haredi) opposition to the here-again, gone-again current peace process is due to the apparent lack of such an adversary. While Haredim await the Messiah’s arrival and restoration of all of Eretz Yisrael to the Jewish people and the re-establishment of the Davidic kingdom, they do not consider it acceptable to try to push history forward.

Yes, Israel’s Haredi population has grown, and its growth has had impact on aspects of Israeli life – in Haredi communities. There has never been any attempt to insinuate religious practices into non-Haredi ones, and no one has ever put forth any plans to do so. The overwhelming majority of Israeli Haredim just want to be left alone and allowed to live their lives as their – and most Jews’ – ancestors did. That shouldn’t discomfit, much less threaten, anyone. And it certainly shouldn’t be portrayed as some looming catastrophe by sky-watchers in ivory towers.

© 2014 Haaretz

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