Pax Ben-Gurioni

Last week I had my beef with Susan Jacoby on her reading of the Gaza flotilla raid as a kind of capsule version of Israel-Arab tribal rivalries. This week she hits the mark in a wonderful, highly critical column about Israel’s Haredim – or ultra-ultra-orthodox Jews – proving that it is possible to criticize Israel without falling into the myopic, anti-Semitic tropes of people like Jose Saramago.

For the record, I share Jacoby’s worry about the Haredim. They are religious extremists dedicated to a Torah-only vision of life on this planet. As an atheist, a secularist and a half-Jew (like Jacoby herself) who cares deeply about the present and future of Israel, I can only applaud her claim that these fanatics imperil Israeli democracy from within.

The sight of thousands of Jews taking to the streets of Israeli cities to fight for the right to wall themselves off in their own ghetto within a Jewish state–and at the expense of that state–is utterly dispiriting. These are people who want to write Baruch Spinoza and Moses Mendelssohn out of Jewish history. They want to shackle their own minds and let other Jews–the Jews who who played such a vital role in creating the modern world—do their fighting for them. And they want the rest of us to shut our mouths out of fear that we will be charged with anti-Semitism for saying that their form of religion is rigid, retrograde, and contemptuous of the beliefs of others. That the State of Israel, founded by men and women of far-reaching vision, should tremble in awe of these fearful people is a shame and a disgrace. And it breaks the hearts of those of us who can never forget the hope and pride we once invested in Israel’s future. Even more, it breaks the hearts of the sabra grandchildren of the tough, proud, secular Jews–men and women of reason who hated the very idea of spiritual or physical ghettos–who devoted their lives to the creation of Israel.

So these are the same problems dogging countries like the United States and Italy. The US has its evangelical nutjobs, and Italy its criminal Catholic Church which intimidates Italian politicians in a way strikingly similar to that of the Haredim in Israel. Of course, the Church is a multi-national institution representing the world’s largest religious denomination, and the Haredim are a small percentage of one of the world’s smallest peoples. But they both want theocracy in the end.

So why can’t the Israelis stand up to them? The history of the Jewish people is so rich, so ennobling, so varied and engrossing that the Haredi version palls in comparison. To think that Torah, or the Gospels, or the Qur’an is unequivocally the best guide to life in the twenty-first century is beyond laughable. It’s dangerous. I’m with Susan on this one.

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