Commentary Magazine


How Many Israels?

The Moroccan Vote

When Disraeli spoke of England as two nations, the rich and the poor, he was not denounced for it. Perhaps that was because he was an Englishman, in the thick of politics. If he had been an outsider, unflattering things might have been said about his understanding and especially his motives, as were said in Israel about the understanding and motives of the cultural anthropologist Alex Weingrod after his “The Two Israels” was published in COMMENTARY, in April 1962. The two Israels, Ashkenazim and Sephardim-”easterners,” are a commonplace in Israel itself, but Weingrod was handled roughly even in that excellent new Israeli bi-monthly, Ammot (sponsored by the American Jewish Committee).

In particular, Weingrod’s critic made much of his being an American Jew and of the psychological needs presumably arising from that circumstance which presumably impelled him to say harsh things about the dominant Ashkenazim. The editor, Shelomo Grodzensky, also entered into the discussion. While not acquitting Weingrod of all the charges of misunderstanding against him, Grodzensky tried to situate him in a tradition of cultural anthropology, influential in America, that refuses to see the fact of cultural difference as meaning the superiority of one culture over another and especially of the people of one culture over the people of another. Affirming that tradition for himself, Grodzensky hoped it would become influential in Israel too.

I am not sure that cultural anthropology is the dominant influence on us. If we have been educated at all, it is by American politics and American society. Not very long ago the intellectual and moral elite here was saying things about the Irish that today we can hardly believe were said even when we see them on the printed page. Low nature, imperviousness to American ideals—there was no end to the bill of particulars. By now it is not hard to see that the accusations tell us as much about the accusers as about the accused, or as little. American Jews, who have been similarly complimented from time to time, know there is something wrong when the same sort of thing is said about the newer lesser breeds in this country, like the immigrant Puerto Ricans and the in-migrant Negroes.

The immigrants’ children or grandchildren finally make it. Sometimes they make it by using means that are conventionally regarded as distasteful or even un-American, such as the famous so-called bloc vote. But we know now, better than ever, that their success has not been at the expense of the common good. The late President Kennedy’s irreducible power base was Irish Catholic Boston. Was he a worse President than, say, Harding and Coolidge, who were not of more or less recent, self-conscious immigrant stock and religion?

In the United States the son of a Protestant immigrant from England or Canada is in some sense old-stock, a realer American than others. The others resent that here. In Israel an immigrant from Poland can be a realer Israeli than other, native-born Israelis. The others resent that there. An American Jew may be the cousin of an Israeli, both having a Polish grandfather in common. All kinds of emotional difficulties are likely between the two, from both sides. Still, it is not those difficulties so much as the American’s American experience that would lead him to sympathize with the resentment of the non-Ashkenazi Israeli.

Whether it will lead him to sympathize with non-Ashkenazi group voting in Israel is something else again. American Jews are uneasy about group voting here, mostly because the individualist ideology that expresses the vision of the good society—and the self-interest—of nearly all modern Jews, almost everywhere, coalesces in America with the individualist ideology that expresses the interest and the values of the enlightened, chiefly Protestant, upper middle class. The favorite newspaper of the Jews of the United States, the New York Times, is unwearying in its disdain for balanced tickets and in its insistence on individual rights, not group rights—unwearying, often unrealistic, and sometimes, in substance if not in form, unjust and uncompassionate. But our American experience and consciousness may be changing, slowly. Since there was a distinct group element among the forces that brought Kennedy to the White House, group feeling in politics cannot be all. bad. To the extent that his election had the effect of narrowing the gap in status between the old and the new stock, it is seen to have been mostly good for the society. And when we think of the Negroes and what the country owes them in justice alone, we begin to discern that individualism, like patriotism for Edith Cavell, is not enough.

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Favoring “one of our own” seems to be more evident than before among the non-Ashkenazim in Israel. By electing the fellow Near Easterner or North African one assures oneself not only the kind of gratification that Italians used to get from Joe DiMaggio here, but also the tangible rewards, and respect, that success in politics normally brings. The Israeli government is doing all it can to raise the living standards, the vocational skills, and the education of the easterners; but let them show disenchantment with the existing parties and elect some of their people on their own ticket, as they did last year in Beersheba and Ashdod, and the government may do even more. How much a government must do sometimes determines how much it can do.

After the elections in Beersheba and Ashdod the expected cries of outrage were heard—“appeals to communal prejudice” and “communalism.” (Communalism, especially in India, means the desire of religious and linguistic communities for states of their own, with some damage to the authority of the central government and to the national unity.) The Jewish Chronicle (London), the Thunderer of the Jews, gravely warned the Israeli government not to temporize or compromise by “patronage . . . on a communal basis,” but instead to “train young Oriental immigrants in the duties and privileges [“privileges” is added to sweeten “duties”] of citizenship.” The words are old, familiar, and therefore comforting. The New York Times has used almost the identical ones about American and New York politics several times a year for many years, and a generation or two ago the uptown Jews here addressed them regularly to the downtown Jews.

Why the fuss? The charge of communalism, in its Indian sense, is silly. Both the easterners and the Ashkenazim are Jews and both speak Hebrew, or would like to speak it. (Today we can see how right the Hebraists were and how wrong the Yiddishists when, decades ago, they debated the proper language for the Yishuv. How would the easterners feel now about an Israel, and their place in such an Israel, whose language was Yiddish? And we can see that the Ashkenazi Hebraists were right, too, in adopting an approximately Sephardi pronunciation for the Hebrew that they ordained.) In these matters Israel is more like the United States than like India, and the experience of the United States is that if groups, so defined by origin and by exclusion from the Establishment, vote as groups, they are voting to become equals in one nation, not to form separate nations. It is also the experience of the United States that the groups within the Establishment, not conscious of themselves as groups, think the outsiders are immoral to behave as they do. Ideology not only justifies interest, it also veils reality.

I have never been able to understand how people in the United States can persuade themselves that it is proper and even desirable to vote for your interest as a worker or a storekeeper or a manufacturer but improper to vote for your interest in achieving equality of treatment and regard as an Italian or a Negro or a Catholic. Is the precise size of your bank account so much more intimately related than your parentage and memories to who you feel you are and how you would like to be treated? In 1960 Irish Catholic businessmen tended to vote for Nixon. To hear some of them talk then—they probably do not want to remember it now—Kennedy was out to destroy business. If they had to err about Kennedy, it would have been a more amiable error to favor him as one of their own, the man whose election would help to affirm the equality of Irish Catholics, than to oppose him as the businessman’s bogeyman.

In the same way, I find it hard to understand why in Israel a Moroccan laborer is thought to be acting with civic virtue and wisdom if he votes for one of the labor parties, but not if he votes for a Moroccan who campaigns on a platform of greater regard and opportunity for Moroccans and Iraqis, and whose very election on an easterners’ slate will hearten his supporters. The labor parties—or the parties representing lower-middle-class shopkeepers, etc.—will be displeased, of course, and take a high moral tone about their displeasure. That does not mean that such a vote is the disservice to Israel that everyone seems to agree it is. In the long run, by exerting pressure on behalf of the second, non-Ashkenazi Israel, it may help to make the two Israels one. Mutatis mutandis, that is what has been happening in America, on the whole, despite the Establishment ideology. Voting for your own becomes less tempting when enough of your own have been elected.

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Completely, Mostly, Partly Observant

Religion, too, has been much in the news in Israel lately. Hyper-Orthodox zealots of the Me’ah She’arim quarter in Jerusalem, indignant about Sabbath travel on a nearby street, stoned cars and buses, week after week; they must have discovered a ruling in the codes or the responsa that stoning is a licit Sabbath activity. In Israel their allies mounted a campaign against missionary schools that came close to intimidation, and in one or two instances to violence. From the Me’ah She’arim of New York, Williamsburg, young people were marched forth to picket the Israeli consulate and to denounce the Israeli government as an inveterate persecutor of Judaism. (The Israeli police had tried to put down the Sabbath stonings. Was that not persecution?) Two of the young New Yorkers, holding with their friends that Israel is no better than a Nazi state, drew swastikas on the consulate building. Altogether, a splendid testimonial to religion.

Most Jews were merely disgusted, but in Israel some had organized a League for the Abolition of Religious Coercion to do something about it. More accurately, the League came into being some time ago to widen the separation of synagogue and state—for instance, by permitting civil marriage, so that an Israeli kohen who wishes to marry a divorcee need no longer go to Cyprus for the marriage. In Jerusalem the police had to head off kibbutznik members of the League who had come a long way to do battle. But some of those people, as far as I can judge, really do not belong in a League for the Abolition of Religious Coercion. Their passion is for the promotion of irreligious coercion. They are from Ha-shomer Ha-tza’ir kibbutzim, which means that they are—what is the classical expression?—critical supporters of the Soviet Union as the leader of the Socialist Camp and of Progressive Humanity. Critical supporters—the adjective is subordinate to the noun. If they have criticized the persecution of religion in the Soviet Union, and the especially intense persecution of Jewish religion, their criticism has been whispered so low that most of us have never heard it. I should hate to have to choose between the two, but I have less fear of the Me’ah She’arim-Williamsburg axis than of the Militant Godless, in or out of the Soviet Union. The religious fanatics, a squalid nuisance, have no hope of coming to power. The bezbozhniks have shown us in Russia what they are capable of, everywhere.

Liberal people like us prefer not to think of it, but it is frighteningly easy to pass from wishing to abolish religious coercion to engaging in irreligious coercion. Voltaire gained a just immortality by his writings and his deeds, as in the Calas case, against the infamy of persecution, and we would like to think that our legacy from him is tolerance and a horror of imposing or suppressing beliefs. But Diderot, Voltaire’s comrade in arms in establishing the Enlightenment tradition, indiscreetly revealed that the aversion from bloodthirstiness and persecution was not so thoroughgoing as all that, provided the right people and causes were persecuting the wrong ones. During the centuries of the Inquisition “the Church abhors blood” was interpreted to mean that heretics should be turned over to the secular arm for burning. Diderot’s “let us strangle the last king with the entrails of the last priest” is rather less dainty. Not all who stand in the tradition of Voltaire and Diderot would persecute if they could, but some would, and do.

Adapting Diderot’s vision to the realities of our day and rejecting its fantasy of violence and blood, we can hope that the time will soon come when the last commissar and the last bezbozhnik have disappeared together, peacefully.

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It is a sad thing that even in Jerusalem Jews of heroic piety, clustered in their dismal little enclave, have their Sabbath invaded or troubled by the internal-combustion engine. For they are heroic in their piety, resisting the temptations of the soft life and the good time, renouncing worldly ambition, embracing poverty. The ascetic devotion of those who laid the foundation for the State of Israel, and particularly the founders of the kibbutz movement, still evokes our admiration, and rightly so. Theirs was a heroism that we recognize, because they were modern people. We ought equally to recognize the heroism of people who are not modern.

So it would be nice if they could have their undisturbed Sabbath. The trouble is that their leaders, or perhaps they themselves, would not be content with arrangements for Me’ah She’arim’s immediate periphery. Even if it were possible to ban Saturday traffic on the disputed road, they would then ask for a ban on the next road, and so on. And here they are at fault. They are right in saying that the State of Israel has not brought an end to Exile. It is their wisdom to understand, as all our ancestors understood, that even the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, is in Exile. That being so, and since they say they must be in exile in Israel too, why do they violate their own principles, acting profanely to extend the domain of the sacred? They challenge the very legitimacy of the State of Israel precisely because Israel is not messianic, but profane. Yet by throwing stones they are guilty of that Hastening of the End for which they condemn the secular Zionists and the State. They deserve to have their little exile, in the Jerusalem that still awaits Redemption, shielded against provocation and needless offense. But they also owe it to their neighbors and especially to themselves to put their faith not in muscle but in the coming of the Messiah, who alone can restore to the Sabbath its due and pristine glory. In the meanwhile, not the least valuable lesson they can teach us is the difference between redemption and Redemption.

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Actually, surprisingly little has been known about Jewish religion in Israel until the publication of a study by the American sociologist Aaron Antonovsky. His “Political and Social Attitudes in Israel,” jointly undertaken by the Israeli Institute for Applied Social Research and the Institute for International Social Research in Princeton, appeared recently in Ammot. While it examines a wide range of questions—party preference, attitudes toward the United States and the Soviet Union, and the like—the most interesting and curious part of it has to do with religion.

Many Israelis, and many American Jews too, have been thoroughly skeptical of the synagogue affiliation and religious self-identification of American Jews. They see this as being not truly religious but primarily a cover for Jewish ethnic feeling. In Israel, they say, evasiveness and self-deception of that kind are unnecessary and therefore non-existent. There no Jew need be or pretend to be religious in order to feel that he is a Jew or to make sure that his children will be Jews. There people are religious or irreligious, with no ambiguous middle ground.

That is the assertion. It is not, as we now discover, the fact. Dr. Antonovsky’s interviewers asked each respondent to choose one of four answers to a question about his religious conduct: (1) completely observant; (2) mostly observant; (3) partly observant; (4) not observant at all, irreligious. By far the largest group of respondents, 46 per cent, described themselves as partly observant! (Thirty per cent chose one or the other of the first two, strongly religious answers, and 24 per cent chose the fourth, irreligious one.) It is something of a relief to know that the Israelis are recognizably like us, with our vacillations and inconsistencies and our compromises that drive the philosophers mad. Perhaps their resemblance to us means that our own religious behavior is not merely what our critics say it is.

Reading the study, one becomes interested in Antonovsky. He has not succeeded in concealing himself. He is clearly disappointed in those 46 per cent, perhaps having hoped that he had seen the last of them in America. Whenever he can, he links them with the irreligious 24 per cent, including them among those he says hold “an exclusively secularist [hilloni] position” or calling them near-secularist, though he could just as well link them with the religious 30 per cent. They belong by themselves, of course, although continuous at one end with the 30 per cent and at the other end with the 24 per cent.

Antonovsky’s attitude toward religion becomes even clearer when he discusses the answers to this question: “Should the Israeli government see to it that public life is in accordance with the Jewish religious tradition?” With consummate objectivity he denominates those who answered yes as clericals, and those who answered no as anti-clericals. (His clericals came to .41 per cent and his anti-clericals to 55 per cent; 4 per cent did not answer. His discussion of what he considers to be inconsistency—people who are personally religious saying that the government should not be concerned, and secularists and “near-secularists” saying that it should—need not occupy us here.) He does not try to get at what his respondents thought they were saying when they answered his question with yes or no, although nothing can be more certain than that they did not understand it alike and that many understood it differently from him. If you asked his secularists or near-secularists who nevertheless say they approve a governmental concern with the religious tradition whether they are for permitting civil marriage, most would probably say yes; but they are also for kosher food in the army and closing government offices on holy days. Some might even mean by the answer they chose that the government ought to do something about usuriously high interest rates. Of his anti-clericals, who say they are opposed to a governmental concern with religion, more would like to see civil marriage permitted than feel that mail should be delivered on Yom Kippur. Besides yes or no, Antonovsky should have allowed his respondents to say yes-and-no. But he does not like middle grounds.

A minor but intriguing point has to do with the first two possible answers to Antonovsky’s question about personal religiousness. (The first was, “Yes, decidedly, I observe all the details [diqduqim] of the Jewish tradition,” and the second was, “I observe it in large part, in most of its details.”) Almost by definition—by definition from within the religion, that is—a religious Jew cannot say he does everything the tradition requires of him. He should be modest, like our teacher Moses. Anyway, he knows what Solomon knew, that there is no man who does not sin. Why, then, did about 15 per cent of the respondents choose the first answer (with another 15 per cent choosing the second)? Perhaps they were just pulling the interviewer’s leg, telling him what they would not dare tell their fellows, in derision of his heathen ignorance. Or perhaps they were making an accommodation to the mind of the heathen, using his language to say something that they would themselves use quite different language for. I have no doubt that some who said they were mostly observant are more pious than some who said they were completely observant, and there may even have been pious Jews among the 46 per cent who said they were only partly observant. This social scientist, who would carefully avoid asking about political ideology in language alien to any political ideologist, apparently did not think it necessary to get a sense of what religion means to the religious before he framed his question about it.

I confess a certain pleasure in the discomfort that those brothers of mine, the 46 per cent, have caused Antonovsky. If they are, as he says, near-secularist, they are also, as he does not say, near-religious. One reason why they stay in the muddled middle may be that while some of the religious 30 per cent are impossible, some of the secularist 24 per cent are not very attractive either.

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