Commentary Magazine

Behind Behind “Who is a Jew” A Letter from Jerusalem

Following a frigid winter which was blamed on the greenhouse effect, the apricot trees of the Judean hills, visible from the Jerusalem Hilton, are in bloom. Gone from the Hilton and also from the King David Hotel are the representatives of American Jewish organizations who hurried over at the end of last year. They were aghast at the outcome of the Knesset elections, and appalled by the prospect that one of the first acts of the new government here would be to write it into law that although our brethren abroad may be doing well, they are pretty poor Jews. The American visitors had a message for our politicians: there was imminent danger of mutiny on the Western front if the Knesset, in a Likud or Labor deal with the rabbis, tampered with the Law of Return.

All that might now seem like ancient history. The headlines in Israel these days are not about midnight meetings between politicians and rabbis to form a government, but about cuts in public spending, price hikes, unemployment, fistfights between Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers in what the world knows as the West Bank, pharmaceuticals to be manufactured by Qaddafi, and a new administration in Washington which, right after it takes care of the deficit, will be free to cooperate with the PLO in the search for peace. The only story held over, it would seem, is the Palestinian uprising—not a mile from the King David, euphoric Arab kids are throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at Jewish buses.

The rapid changes in the headlines are as typical of this country as they are deceptive. It’s true that to live here is to belong to the Crisis-of-the-Month Club. But anyone who holds out for more than a few years comes to realize that all the crises in Israel can be classified under three main headings, and every apparently fresh crisis is really only the latest installment of one which previously simmered down or was upstaged.

The three permanent crises, the trio of open questions, are the Economic, the Cultural-Religious, and the Military-Geopolitical. They can be visualized as three pots cooking on a single stove, any and all liable to boil over at any time. Practically the only function of an Israeli government is to attend to the pot closest to spilling onto the floor. The Cultural-Religious pot, having boiled up as never before and brought those American Jewish VIP’s flying over, is bubbling peacefully now, thanks to the formation of another so-called national-unity government. To forget this particular pot would be tempting. It would also be a profound mistake. For not only does the Cultural-Religious question remain open—contrary to conventional wisdom, it is the crucial one.

This question is crucial, and very old. How we Israeli Jews finally answer it, or continue to beg it, will largely determine how we allocate the wealth we make or are granted, and how we pursue or steer clear of the vision or chimera of peace with the Palestinians. Anybody who hopes to understand what might pit us against each other and against our brethren in Exile, as well as what, until now, has bound us strongly together, could therefore do worse than put away the newspaper. He would do well to look back, not just a few months, but all the way to Israel’s first exercise in democracy.




The skullcapped parties in the 1949 elections ran together. No fewer than four of them combined—the two factions of Mizrahi (“Spiritual Center”) and the two factions of Agudat Yisrael (“Israel Association,” Israel signifying nothing nationalistic, but rather all the descendants of Jacob, who was renamed after wrestling with the angel). Mizrahi’s bosses and voters were the observant, usually clean-shaven Jews who had always gone along with the unbelieving Zionists in the land of Israel. Those of Aguda were the bearded, black-coated people whom the foreign press here calls the ultra-Orthodox and who until a few years before had shunned the Zionists and their institutions like the plague. In 1949 this unified list garnered a little over 12 percent of the popular vote, or 16 Knesset seats out of 120. But its unity was ephemeral. By the next elections, in 1951, it had splintered into its parts, with Mizrahi, revamped into the National Religious Party (NRP), winning 10 seats, and the anti-Zionist Aguda five.

But can a party which goes into the Knesset truly be religious? Or anti-Zionist? No and yes.

The anti-Zionism of Aguda was and is no accident. Its founders, rabbis all, understood as early as 1912, when they gathered in the Polish town of Katowice, that by striving to revolutionize and normalize Jewish life, and reintroduce us collectively into the family of nations, the Zionists were dispensing with the messiah and menacing Judaism as Judaism had been adapted to the Exile, especially in Eastern Europe. This Judaism, this culture, had first been placed on the defensive by rumors of Enlightenment and Emancipation. Now came Zionism. The basic facts are fairly common knowledge today, even among American Jews. What is less well-known is that until almost all the Jews in Eastern Europe were exterminated, Aguda was—in spite of Zionism, Communism, Bundism, socialism, and assimilation—maybe the most popular party among them, based as it was and is on the great hasidic dynasties.

Though almost none of their flocks survived the Nazis, more than a few of the leading hasidic rabbis, and with them this anti-Zionist ideology, did. Those rabbis who escaped, and didn’t settle in Brooklyn, came here, where they began reconstituting their power and shattered communities. To do this, it was necessary to get help from the Zionists—help, for example, in bringing the head of the Ger dynasty out of Poland to Jerusalem in 1940. In return for this assistance, the Aguda pragmatically began segregating its ideology from some of its practice. It coordinated with the Zionists for about fifteen years—that is, just before, during, and right after the extermination—while clinging to the anti-Zionist faith and continuing to drum it into the heads of its children.

This anti-Zionism was compartmentalized, not watered down. It came out in a thousand telling ways during Israel’s first years. Yiddish, not Hebrew, was what you heard spoken by the strictly-brought-up kids in the Mea Shearim quarter of Jerusalem and the Bnei Brak neighborhood of Tel Aviv. They did not show the flag on Independence Day, they did not stand up for Hatikvah, they omitted the prayer for the welfare of the state, and God forbid that they should serve in the army.

Yet the Gedolei HaTorah, the Aguda’s Council of Torah Sages comprising the rabbis and headmasters of each dynasty, instructed the party’s politicians to enter the Zionist parliament. One of these politicians, Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Levin, the Gerer rebbe‘s son-in-law, actually put his signature to the Declaration of Independence. This scandalized the super-purists in Mea Shearim, that is, Neturei Karta (“Guardians of the City”) and the Satmar Hasidim. The Aguda had to justify running for and serving in the godless Knesset and even joining the government—Levin was Israel’s first minister of the dole. Of course, no politician-rabbi of this stripe was converted to Zionism, if Zionism is the project of “normalizing” the Jews. Nor did the Aguda rabbis confess that their emotions might have gotten the better of them in those heady days when the Jewish state, after nineteen centuries, and only three years after the gas chambers shut down, was resurrected. But it was, to say the least, hard to ignore Israel.

Some of the anti-Zionist rabbis split hairs—they intimated that although the new state could never do the messiah’s job, it might, if it became truly Jewish, prepare the way for him. This was perilously close to the Mizrahi position, to the strategy of stealing Zionism from the Zionists, and it was not put into so many words. The justification offered for getting involved in Israeli politics was pragmatic, not to say fiscal. The notables of Aguda’s ruling council had made up their minds that for the funds for which the Jewish state could be milked, and which they needed for the schools and soup kitchens of their poor, maimed communities, supping with the devil was acceptable.



Satan appeared in the person of David Ben-Gurion, Zionist hero and Israel’s first Prime Minister. Here was a Jew who put all his considerable energy into the forging of a New Jew, one without skullcap or earlocks, a Jew who would use Hebrew in the street, who would eat whatever he liked, who would know much of the Bible by heart but none of the Talmud, who would read Plato in the original and do yoga, who would be a farmer, a cop, a scientist, a soldier in his own nation-state. BG was a hard-nosed kind of visionary. Unlike Martin Buber up at the Hebrew University, he was blessed with a biography and an ideology preempting sentimentality about the black coats. He knew they were not picturesque and heartwarming. Nor were they all gentle—in the old days, Ben-Gurion and his Zionist friends had at least once been set upon and thrashed by Hasidim in Poland. Yes, these people from the beginning had been, with the Jewish Communists and most of the Reform rabbis, among the nastiest, most resolute adversaries Zionism faced, both in Eastern Europe and in the land of Israel.

If Aguda’s official motives for dealing with him were pragmatic, so were BG’s for dealing with it, and above all for granting its yeshiva students exemptions from his beloved Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Truculent visionary that he was, he was also, until he grew very old, a skilled politician, and he said he wished to avoid unnecessary wars among Jews at a time when the Jewish state was very young and had a lot on its plate. He hated the proportional system of electing the Knesset, repeatedly trying and failing to reform it. But if coalitions had to be made, he argued, it was better to make them with rabbis to the Right of him than with the Stalinists to the Left or with that man Begin. This was BG’s oft-repeated reason for agreeing to the so-called “status quo” in religious matters.

But the question which poses itself and which it is impossible to answer is whether BG was absolutely immune to sentiment, whether his heart did not also move him a fraction. For something all too human happened forty years ago to some Zionists who had fled the embrace of the Eastern European Jewish hamlet, the shtetl, forty years before that. They let down their guard before the pathetic remnants of that world.

The Zionist founders in Palestine were flinty, they burned with a gemlike flame, they were extremists or they were nothing. There were more than a few good haters among them, maybe because, like it or not, more than a few had impeccable hasidic pedigrees. Yet one way or the other, such heroic types could never get the murdered world of the shtetl quite out of their reflexes and their reveries. It was the world, after all, of their grandfathers and grandmothers, and of their own childhoods, and as much as it had stifled and sickened them, causing them as young men and women to take off for Palestine, now that they were young no longer, and now that that world had been destroyed, some (like BG’s comrade, Zalman Shazar, who was to be Israel’s third President and who now revealed sympathies with the Habad movement of the Lubavitcher Hasidim) were sufficiently human to relent. What harm could the black-coated, white-bearded folk do now? They were leftovers, remnants. More conclusively and horribly than any Zionist dreamed, history had shown the rabbis’ way to be wrong and Zionism’s right.

Of course, Ben-Gurion was no closet Hasid. If he was really nostalgic for anything, it was for the days of Joshua, King David, and Isaiah, not the muddy lanes of Plonsk. His obsession was to recreate the Jewish state in the land of Israel. To this end, he would have to galvanize, coax, and bully the Jews. For such a singleminded brute, he displayed, depending on how you look at it, great flexibility, cunning, or opportunism. Although he could treat the seventeen centuries between Bar Kochba’s revolt against Rome and the first Zionist congress as so much lost time, he could also write, in a letter to Mizrahi members of the Knesset in 1950, “Even for a freethinking Jew like myself, our faith is still something that commands respect, and any Jew who does not revere Judaism in one way or another is alien to Jewish history.”

From another politician, this could be written off as pure unctuousness. With BG, it must have been in some measure at least sincere. Whatever he sometimes said, he seems to have known that the culture of those seventeen centuries also constituted a portion of the new state’s inheritance which it would be foolhardy to try to renounce. The negator of the Diaspora was not above quoting nuggets from the Talmud himself, for example the platitude that “the Jews are sometimes like the stars, and sometimes like dirt.” Meanwhile, there were professors at the Hebrew University in those early years of Israel, superb scholars, excellent Zionists, winners of government grants and prizes, who devoted their lives to studying aspects of Judaism—Gershom Scholem, tracing the continuity between some of its myths and some of Zionism’s, was only the most illustrious of these unbelieving intellectuals. They, however, only looked deeply into this cultural baggage and inheritance. They did not live it. So long as everyone else had his mind on the future, and on the Bible, no harm would be done if BG acceded and allowed several hundred “ultra-Orthodox” boys to be excused from the IDF in order to sit and hit the holy books day and night.




Hebrew knows nothing of the “ultra-Orthodox.” Instead, Israelis usually refer to them by their own name for themselves—haredim. A passable translation would be “fundamentalists.” A better one would be “Zealots for the Law,” the Law being, of course, not the law of the Zionist land, a hodgepodge of Anglo-Saxon, Ottoman, and Napoleonic legislation interpreted in the highest instance by the Israeli Supreme Court, but the Halakhah, the commandments and rules handed down in the desert, elaborated in the Talmud, and codified most recently by Joseph Caro in the 16th century.

The original haredim were Ashkenazi (of European origin). Now there are haredim of the Sephardi (Asian- and African-origin) variety also. The costume of the Ashkenazi haredim is more or less that of the Polish nobility of the 17th century. They are also known, less than affectionately, as shechorim (“blacks”) and dossim (“religious”), the latter epithet being the Ashkenazi pronunciation of dati’im (see below). The demographers say that the fruitful haredim by now make up about 10 percent of the Jewish population of Israel. They predict that the percentage will continue rising.

Next come the dati’im. They are another 10 percent and correspond roughly to what are known in the Diaspora as the Orthodox, for example the faculty of Yeshiva University in New York. In principle, and sometimes practice, the dati’im bear the yoke of Halakhah as conscientiously as any hared, observing the same 613 commandments. They are, however, Zionists, maybe the most fervent Zionists going today, being the current generation of those observant Jews who worked hand in glove with Ben-Gurion.

Theirs is a brand of Zionism, let it immediately be added, that repudiates normality for the Jews. They wear the knitted skullcap, serve in the IDF, reside outside the self-imposed ghettos, and study not only holy but workaday subjects. The dati’im, like the haredim when you get to know them, are not so homogeneous as they may at first seem. They range from the mild-mannered doves in the new Meimad (“Religious Center”) party which did not quite make it into the Knesset, to the gun-toting, messiah-intoxicated settlers whom the foreign press, not to mention our local journalists, loves to hate.

Yet on the whole it is true that the dati’im have been, in the colloquial Hebrew, “going black.” This does not mean that they have been putting on gabardine—though there are stories of some leaving the pro-Zionist yeshivas to join the haredim. It means that a certain mind-set has been making inroads into the younger dati generation. This mind-set signals itself in costume—luxuriant beards, larger skullcaps. It cherishes very particular, very ancient ideas about the world, about reality, about the Gentiles, and about Jews who have shrugged off the yoke.

If the older generation of dati’im, graduates of German universities, appreciated Goethe, their sabra (Israeli-born) grandsons have not heard of him, and tend to think that the outside world possesses nothing of value. In this they resemble more the haredim than the professors at Yeshiva University. A Gentile is an anti-Semite. A Jew who thinks otherwise is, at best, pitiful. The Law of Return needs to be corrected. And the United States—like Babylon, Athens, and Rome of vivid memory—is the great cultural enemy, the wellspring of every contemporary abomination from pornography to democracy, from intermarriage to rock. “Dizengoff” is the pejorative of these devoted young Israelis for their countrymen who have nothing else to do with their lives than ape America.

The reference is to Tel Aviv’s main drag. Dizengoff Street on Friday nights jumps until the wee hours with movement, light, cars, motorcycles, music, food, Arab waiters, Swedish au pairs. Couples neck, and pork, renamed basar lavan (“white meat”), is on the menu. The bookstores carry everything from Lao-tse to Tom Wolfe. The boutiques are chic, the side streets house Israel’s best art galleries, the beach is three blocks distant. Do the crowds of young and old, conversing and shouting in Hebrew, Polish, English, and Russian, make up the country’s “secular” population?



There is a word in Hebrew for secular—hiloni. If the Kulturkampf here worsens, it may become another term of abuse. In the meantime, it is relatively value-free. Our thousands of years of infighting have, in any case, provided a stockpile of many more stinging labels to stick on Jews who conduct themselves as they should not. Kofrim (“apostates”) is a good one, apikorsim (“atheists”) is also good, smolanim (“leftists”) has become a standby. But secular? Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook, appointed by the British the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine, and together with his rabbi son the inspiration of the skullcapped settlers, once said that there was simply no such thing as a secular Jew—in every Jew, no matter how far lapsed, a divine spark glimmers.

Be that as it may, the pollsters report that some 35 percent of Israelis today, most of them Ashkenazi, consider themselves secular Jews, whatever that is. Furthermore, decals proclaiming Ani Hiloni Hared have been popping up on windshields—a play on words meaning, “I’m a worried secularist.” And the sublimest heretic in Jewish history has an annual conference on secular humanistic pluralism named after him, which convenes now in Jerusalem, now in Tel Aviv, now in Haifa.

These Spinoza symposia are paid for, like much else in Israel, by one of America’s many Jewish millionaires. The events are organized by Yirmiyahu Yovel, professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University and a former talk-show host on Israel TV, who wants to see whether, on the battlefield of ideas, a secular, humanistic, pluralistic brand of Zionism cannot still vie with religious fundamentalism. The way Yovel, who spends his vacations riding horses in France, understands and promotes it, the modern faith takes man as the measure and leaves him to be guided by reason. Having been (in this reading) probably the first Jew to suffer anathema for being reasonable, Spinoza makes an appropriate patron saint for these high-powered get-togethers.

The audiences are much the same as at Peace Now rallies—bareheaded Ashkenazim with university degrees, usually in the humanities or one of the “caring” professions. The speakers are Israelis like the novelist A.B. Yehoshua, the publisher Gershom Schocken, the playwright Yehoshua Sobol. Also present are guests from the melting pot, such as Saul Bellow and Michael Walzer. The American Jews give their talks in English. The locals speak Hebrew—a juicy, sinewy, refined, allusive, intense Hebrew. These conventions, which manage to fill no more than a medium-size lecture hall, offer some proof of the reserves of energy, stamina, and loyalty of an Israeli subgroup which these days usually seems simply demoralized and alienated.

Israel is the land of seminars. Unlike some, the Spinoza is more than a festival for the converted. True to his professed principles, Yovel brings on the sharpest objectors and skeptics to pose the hardest questions they can. It goes without saying that no hared would be caught dead at such a gathering. No hared, however, could pose harder questions to the secularist faithful than their unlikely idol, the eighty-six-year-old scientist Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz. And even when the skullcapped Leibowitz is not on the rostrum, the devil’s advocates and the opposition are expected to go all-out.

Shmuel Schnitzer, bareheaded columnist of the daily Ma’ariv, demands to know of panelists and audience exactly what the secularism of Jews is supposed to be. He can understand what it negates, what it is not, but for the life of him he cannot imagine what it has to offer, what its positive content is, how it is different from secularism plain and simple. He hopes to be enlightened. What are its norms of behavior, private and public? How can a state calling itself Jewish be run according to it? The organizers say they are Zionists. That’s good. But can Jewish nationalism be divorced from religion? Can a secular Jewish faith reproduce itself over the generations? And anyway, is pluralism good for the Jews? Has it really been all that good for them in America?

Schnitzer’s challenge is taken up by Yovel and others, who give answers as plausible as they are familiar. A secular Judaism, it is said, is one which retains and fosters the values of Judaism, or at least some of them, but without the regulations and mystifications—it holds on to the baby, as it were, while throwing out the bathwater. Such an approach, the secularists go on, is particularly valid, and possible, when a Jew is at home in his own country and not in Exile. If it be objected that this is no longer Judaism, well, history shows that Judaism is what Jews make of it—including a Jew like Baruch Spinoza. In any event, practically speaking, an Israel run the other way, according to Halakhah, would first turn off most of the Jews in the world, and then tear itself apart with wars among the rabbis. Schnitzer listens, one eyebrow raised.

To all these old, brightly burning questions are added the new ones. Professor Eliezer Schweid, a dati versed in secular subjects, asks without sneering why the supposedly secular Zionism of Ahad Ha’am and Bialik and A.D. Gordon, not to mention Herzl, on which the audience has been weaned, has fallen to its present estate. Why is there a younger generation of Israelis which, knowing nothing and believing in less, is a prey to fundamentalism? Is it maybe the secularists’ own fault? Is there something missing from their program, some knowledge or emotion which, if not the rootless Herzl, then Ahad Ha’am, Bialik, and Gordon themselves, who were steeped in rabbinical Judaism before they reacted against it, never lacked?




Spinoza argues that the best thing is to love God, though God could not care less. This is icy stuff. Discussions on Spinoza are not about to become a mass phenomenon in the Jewish state. Yet some of the anxieties of the hiloni Ph.D.’s are shared by the man in the street. This is thanks to the fact that the Friday-night crowd on Dizengoff is almost as variegated as Israel itself. In it you find not only hilonim, not only Ashkenazim who vote for Labor, Shinui (“Change”), the Citizens Rights Movement, Mapam, and parties farther to the Left, but both Sephardim and Ashkenazim who vote for the Likud and factions farther to the Right. Desecrating the Sabbath, they motor into the heart of the urban sprawl to unwind, and if queried, many would hotly deny that they are secular, describing themselves rather as traditional—something known as masorti.

This is a category to which the surveys say the largest number of Israeli Jews belong, something like 45 percent. The masorti category, mainly though not exclusively Sephardi, implies a multitude of contradictory habits. The Israeli who regards himself as such may, for example, walk to the synagogue on the morning of the seventh day, and then drive to a soccer game in the afternoon to yell himself hoarse. He’s eclectic. This Jew, no fan of the Left, has lately been coming to realize that if the dati’im and haredim, whom he continues to respect much more than he does the hilonim, get their way, he will be deprived of his soccer match on the day of rest, and maybe all days—sports and circuses have no place in a Jewish theocracy.

The amorphous, intermittently aroused Center in Israel also counts these people. The issues on which they may be mobilized have to be close to home—the Law of Return, “Who is a Jew,” the legitimacy of Reform and Conservative rabbis, and other such problems, are far too remote. In Jerusalem, for example, the pure-Ashkenazi Citizens Rights Movement and the Vienna-born Mayor Teddy Koliek, recently reelected, were able to make common cause with the city’s soccer fans, Likudniks and Sephardim almost to a man, to petition the Supreme Court and get a decent sports stadium built. The project had been held up for fifteen years by the haredi parties.

Other issues may crop up. One is the exemption of haredi young men from the army—the 400 yeshiva students excused by BG in his germinal deal with Aguda have multiplied to 20,000. The hiloni is more apt than the masorti to consider this a national disgrace. Respectful of something known as tradition, mindful of its many uses, the masorti allows that they also serve who only sit and learn the Talmud. Yet how many need do this? The knowledge that more than a division of able-bodied youngsters are let off, while their age-mates do three years’ duty, followed by thirty boring and dangerous years in the reserves, scrapes a nerve.

The haredim boast that there are more yeshiva students in Israel today than there ever were in Eastern Europe. If true, this is indeed a startling comeback, one of history’s most curious wrinkles. But hitting the books nonstop is not really in the nature of so many young men, especially not in a country with so much sunshine and non-talmudic excitements. So you have black-coated commandos who spend their Sabbaths throwing rocks at cars, and now there is a gang (Keshet, “the Non-Compromisers”) that has been planting bombs at newsstands selling secular newspapers in haredi neighborhoods. Keshet has also daubed swastikas on Ben-Gurion’s grave. The cops who have to put in overtime when the scholars are throwing stones, and who without fail are called “Nazis” by them, are masorti Sephardim, and they don’t like it.

Without drawing extravagant conclusions from the fact, it may be mentioned that the biggest protest demonstration of recent years, held in Tel Aviv while the politicians and rabbis were huddling last winter, was over the “draft-dodging” of the haredim. It was attended by the usual suspects, but not only by them. Among the retired generals addressing the outdoor meeting was Rafael (“Raful”) Eitan, a former chief of staff of the IDF and now head of the far-Right Tsomet (“Crossroads”) party. Raful, dressed in a jogging suit, drew cheers when he said that everyone without exception should have to do some kind of military service.



The anxiety and resentment of the hilonim and not a few of the masortim are usually tempered by the fatalism and irony without which life in Israel is simply too risky. As the government-making talks dragged on last fall, however, the haredim upping the ante and Shamir and Peres taking turns promising them the sky, you could have cut the ill-feeling with a knife. The country’s favorite comedy-and-satire team, Hagashash Hahiver (“The Pale Tracker”), did a skit on Friday-night TV portraying imaginary, black-coated morals police on the beach. It was a sketch in acid, not in the least good-humored, and in Tel Aviv they ate it up. Meanwhile, in real life, at a Jerusalem bus stop, a woman ranted to no one in particular, “For this we came to this country? For this we sacrificed? To turn it all over to the dossim? Who would have thought?” On and on she went, and no one in her captive audience spoke up, except a bareheaded gent who finally protested, “Is that any way to talk?”

“Well,” she said, “aren’t I right?”

“Maybe you are. But why this hatred?”

Sin’a—hatred. In context, this is short for sin’at hinam, itself a code term. A sociologist with a smattering of Hebrew and a little experience of Israel might render sin’at hinam as “free-floating hostility.” But that sociologist would be wrong. Sin’at hinam, as all Israeli schoolchildren no matter what kind of school they go to can tell you, signifies the sharply focused, essentially baseless hatred of Jews for their fellow Jews, which seems endemic among us and which reached its most destructive pitch so far only twenty centuries ago.

The old-time sages of Judaism said that it was as divine punishment for sin’at hinam that the Second Temple was burned and we were cast into Exile. That emotion was the sin of sins. The explanation has been taught for years in all Israeli schools, including the secular ones where, since the late 1950’s, there have been compulsory courses in what BG and his Education Minister, Zalman Aranne, called “Jewish Consciousness.” It remains to be seen how effectively the cautionary tale of sin’at hinam has been internalized. What is for sure is that, as a code term, it is universally recognized, even by people who have never read the ancient historian Josephus and do not know the saying, attributed to the late president of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, “Give them time, brothers, and they’ll devour themselves.”

The reverse side of our patented genius for survival, in other words, has always been our genius for going overboard, for taking an idea too far, for self-mutilation. The word for it is extremism. It starts with either an idea or an emotion, proceeds to action—prohibitions, bans, excommunications—and in biblical days and later it debouched in such bloodshed as to give the nations pause. Maybe Nasser, no great reader, was told that the savagery of the civil war which we Jews conducted among ourselves in besieged Jerusalem shocked the Romans. The memory of that epochal, self-inflicted catastrophe is alive today among Israeli Jews, as is the vague inkling or clear perception that we carry something in our genes more dangerous to ourselves than to our enemies.

The sovereign remedy for, the best prophylaxis against, sin’at hinam is supposed to be ahavat Yisrael—the loving, forgiving concern of Jews for all other Jews. This too appears in the Israeli curriculum. It is, however, a concept loaded with religious overtones, so in secular schools, as part of the Jewish-values classes, it is transmuted into ahdut ha’am—national unity. Either way, these are grand concepts, easy cover for hypocrisy. Much more modest is the simple sense of self-preservation—preserve us from ourselves! It operated last year, not without agonies of suspense, and not without help from those American Jewish firemen, to head off a government beholden to the “rabbis.” That was the Center in Israel holding. But Jewish history is too rich in other precedents to be confident about the next time, especially when pockets of extremism in one form or another are to be found across the gamut.

The same Professor Leibowitz who informs the hilonim that their “humanism” is nothing more than egotism, and who used to upbraid the chief rabbis for being BG’s “kept women,” dismisses ahdut ha’am as a “sacred cow.”

Learned, polyglot, wrathful, comfortless, Leibowitz appeals greatly to the somewhat masochistic Peace Now-ers and the alienated hilonim. Is it in part due to the fact that he is a commandment-keeper? Mincing words is not his style—for him, any Jew who does not bear the yoke of the Law is derelict. Certainly the violence of the professor’s language is winning for most of his strange fans. Take, for example, his comment on the perennial idea of changing the Law of Return so that only Jews converted by Orthodox rabbis would be kosher:

Any conversion to Judaism which is not done for its own sake is worthless, no matter who officiates, whether a rabbi who is called Orthodox and gets his salary from the government, or a “Conservative” or “Reform” rabbi who has thrown off the yoke and believes himself to be religious! The very few genuine conversions need no governmental seal of approval, while the production line of casual converts is a moral and religious outrage, a mockery of Judaism!

His audience knows to what he refers—the black American basketballers who have been “converted” by the chief rabbinate so that Maccabi Tel Aviv can field a team of international stature. To hear the religious establishment exposed is especially satisfying to these hilonim when it is done by a man who is himself an observant Jew.

Yet as thrilling as they find his words, few of Leibowitz’s admirers have changed their lives in accordance with them. Few have resumed the yoke which their grandparents or great-grandparents laid down. Few have heeded the professor’s calls to refuse service as reserve soldiers in the occupied territories and to go to jail instead. Cowardice? Or a sense of loyalty, after all, on the part of the Peace Now-ers to the country which so many of them have half-despaired of, and which they fear may have an even slimmer chance if Leibowitz’s extremist remedies are actually applied? For the truest and most dangerous split in Israel is not between Right and Left, or observant and lapsed, but between those who are itching for a showdown and those who could live without it. The so-called “status-quo” rule is the expedient of those who think the better part of valor is to put off any showdowns among Jews.




“Status quo” being one of those Gentile notions for which there can be no good Hebrew translation, it has been taken over into Israeli usage as is. Today it refers to the arrangement made between Ben-Gurion and Aguda in 1947.

In the summer of that year the British announced that they had had enough and the UN sent a commission to Palestine in advance of recommending how to solve the problem between the Arabs and the Jews. There would be the usual hearings. Ben-Gurion, head of the Jewish Agency, understood the importance of these hearings to the goal of partition and a Jewish state. It would not do if Agudat Yisrael demurred or demonstratively stayed away. He therefore wrote a letter to the Aguda’s Rabbi Levin, signed also by a Mizrahi politician and a non-socialist Zionist politician, which declared that although “it is not [our] intention to establish a theocracy,” the coming state would leave authority over the marriages and divorces of all Jews to rabbinical courts, the Jewish Sabbath would be the official day of rest, kashrut would hold in state institutions, and separate “streams” of education emphasizing Judaism for those who wanted it would be paid for by the government.

This letter, along with the emotions of that period which seem to have swayed even many Jews who had never been enthusiastic about Zionism, was enough to persuade Aguda not to strike any discordant notes at the UN hearings. In fact, as has been mentioned, Rabbi Levin the following year signed the Declaration of Independence, a document hard if not impossible to square with Aguda’s view of Halakhah, vowing as it does to accord freedom of conscience and religion to all citizens of the miraculous new state and equal civil rights to everyone regardless of religion, sex, race, or national origin.

The 1947 letter did not contain the magic words status quo—it would be twelve years before they made an appearance in any official paper. But the apparent agreement thus framed was popularly known as the status quo from the start.

The feelings of the period notwithstanding, however, both the signatories to and the recipient of that landmark letter probably suspected that, once the British departed and the Jews, for the first time in a hundred generations, were on their own, things would not remain nicely frozen. Or maybe, caught up in events, they only understood it implicitly, and it took the half-blind Chaim Weizmann (soon to become the first President of Israel), writing on a mountaintop in Switzerland in 1948, to see clearly what was coming, status quo or no status quo:

I have never feared really religious people. The genuine type has never been politically aggressive; on the contrary, he seeks no power, he is modest and retiring—and modesty was the great feature in the lives of our saintly rabbis and sages in olden times. It is the new, secularized type of rabbi, resembling somewhat a member of a clerical party in Germany, France, or Belgium, who is the menace, and who will make a heavy bid for power by parading his religious convictions. It is useless to point out to such people that they transgress a fundamental principle which has been laid down by our sages: “Thou shalt not make of the Torah a crown to glory in, or a spade to dig with.” There will be a great struggle. I foresee something which will perhaps be reminiscent of the Kulturkampf in Germany, but we must be firm if we are to survive; we must have a clear line of demarcation between legitimate religious aspirations and the duty of the state toward preserving such aspirations, on the one hand, and on the other hand the lust for power which is sometimes exhibited by pseudo-religious groups.



In fact, almost as soon as the invading Arab armies were beaten back in 1948-49, we started fighting among ourselves over the application of the status quo. Shabbat was the official day of rest—but what if, in Haifa, all through the Mandate period, vehicles operated by the Jewish bus cooperative had served the people who wanted to go to the beach on their day off? Would they now have to walk? Kashrut on army bases, of course—but could kibbutzim breed pigs? And how about autopsies? Or mixed bathing at a new swimming pool in Jerusalem? It was hard to say.

There were haredi stonethrowing and arson, hiloni counterprovocations, the riot squad was called in, Jews were teargassed and clubbed by other Jews. The status quo in practice was anything but. It was, at best, a kind of modest social contract whereby the cultural-religious wars would be waged incrementally and not too viciously. At worst, it was a fiction. For the socialist Zionists who had made the new state had one vision of the true, the good, and the beautiful, the various observant Jews had another, and if the former, led none too tamely by BG, were prepared to accommodate, the latter, even in the chummy Mizrahi-NRP, could never take their eyes off the final goal—namely, a state ruled by Halakhah—without betraying themselves.

“Both our people, as a whole, and our religion, in specific, are totally different from all others,” Rabbi Meir Berlin, later Bar-Ilan, head of Mizrahi, had written in 1922. “When we have a state, should anyone try to separate church and state, this will represent not a separation but a contradiction.” So although it was sometimes fudged, the bottom line with the NRP was really the same as with the haredim: an acceptable, grown-up Jewish polity could only be, not one of laws and customs borrowed from here and there, but of the Law. The difference, and not a small one, was that in the coming Jewish state Mizrahi thought to bring the Jews, too many of whom had recently been impressed by Locke, Madison, and Marx, around by example and education, not coercion. “We must modify them gradually,” wrote Berlin, “not by passing laws but by educating the young.”

The hottest issue therefore was not swimming pools. It was the hearts and minds of the Israeli young. Who would teach what to the orphans of the extermination, and to the children of the African and Asian refugees? BG understood as well as anyone that on this issue hinged the character and future of the country. On this he would not budge—if the state was going to pay for the schools, it must have at least some supervision over them, and even the kids learning in the Judaism-stream must be inculcated with Zionism. At that, Rabbi Levin quit the government, and in 1952 Aguda set up its own educational system. It would be twenty-nine years before the haredim sat around the cabinet table again.

So in the revised status quo, there were three streams laving the minds of the first generation of Israelis—socialist, General Zionist, and dati. The largest number of pupils, reflecting the political dominance and cultural ascendancy of the country’s founders, went to the so-called socialist schools. There, when they were not hiking the length and breadth of the land, they were belabored with the ideals which had driven the older generation, plus “Jewish Consciousness,” plus BG’s mamlakhtiut—“statism.”



As long as the founders remained top dogs culturally and politically, it was the kids in the more and more archaically-named socialist stream who could consider themselves the heirs to power. Indeed, while cultural-religious skirmishes could disturb the peace, even bring down governments, they were basically a sideshow until a certain historical dialectic caught up with the world, with Israel, and with Jews everywhere. The status quo in the meantime worked not well, but well enough.

While it did, BG could try to concentrate on the task of making a New Jew. This does not mean that he was not continually required to justify his God-and-Caesar arrangement with Aguda, and especially with the NRP. His motives for giving them such a healthy slice of the pie were, he said again and again to his critics, both pragmatic and broadly historical. If he met the observant halfway, if he gave them their budgets and ritual baths, their schools and chief rabbinate, they would give him a free hand in other, more important matters, such as accepting reparations from the Germans and aligning with the U.S. The way to domesticate the rabbis, he sometimes hinted, was not to shut them out but to bring them in—to coopt them, as we say today. And to those of his party comrades and socialist-Zionist rivals who were pressing for a constitution and unmistakable separation of synagogue and state, BG replied that they were being irresponsible and ignorant at one and the same time.

Irresponsible, because if it was made crystal clear that the infant Jewish state must grow up godless, this would plunge it into a Kulturkampf at the worst possible moment. Ignorant of Jewish history, because, like it or not, with the Jews it was neither easy “to separate the national from the religious aspect,” nor, contrary to what Weizmann seemed to have prescribed, was it advisable to try, certainly not right away. First things first—gather in the survivors and the refugees, make New Jews of their children, green the Negev, summon a couple of million American Jews from their fleshpots, and then worry about writing a constitution. BG had his way on this, thanks as much to the outlook of his countrymen at that time as to his terrifying singlemindedness.

Note that in his Swiss prophecy, Weizmann, a man of the world, did not really come out for a James Madison-type separation of church and state. “We must have,” he wrote ambiguously, “a clear line of demarcation between legitimate religious aspirations and the duty of the state toward preserving such aspirations, on the one hand, and on the other hand the lust for power which is sometimes exhibited by pseudo-religious groups.”

Where exactly should that line be threaded? Should the “duty of the state” simply consist in seeing to it that everyone can worship, or not worship, as he pleases? Or should the state establish an official religion, like the Church of England? Weizmann did not specify. He was intelligent enough to refrain, however, from recommending an American model for Israel. Nor did he stipulate which “religious aspirations” were legitimate, and which illegitimate, other than making a maybe not completely frank distinction between spiritual prestige and political power.

It is not even clear which group of rabbis Weizmann was warning against. Maybe the “new, secularized type” of clerics he had in mind were in the mold of his nemesis, the American Reform rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, orator and Zionist leader. Possibly Weizmann meant the politicos of Mizrahi. Or did he, in 1948, actually foresee that one day the types who had rapped him over the knuckles when he was a schoolboy in a White Russian hole would claim the balance of power in the reborn Jewish state?

For that is how things have regressed or evolved. From being a sideshow on the political scene, the religious anti-Zionists have come to be in a position where, unless there is an electoral reform to curb them, they will continue to be able to prevent either of the country’s two main parties from forming a normal government.

What happened?




Measured as a proportion of the entire popular vote of Jews and Arabs, or in terms of Knesset seats, the gain for the religious parties as a whole, Zionist and anti-Zionist, has not been tremendous. If in 1949 they got 12.19 percent of the vote and 16 seats, last year they got 15.34 percent and 18 seats. Even this is no record, for as long ago as 1961, the grand total for the religious camp was 15.43 percent and 18 seats. The true story emerges only from a comparison of the subtotals.

While in 1951 the easygoing NRP took 10 out of 15 seats, and in 1961 no fewer than 12 out of 18, by last year the ratio was reversed, and the various haredi parties captured 13 of these 18.

This is a minor revolution. Yet the consequences of it would not have convulsed Israel and Jewry a few months ago, and would not be threatening to do it again after the next elections, if two other things had not also happened in the last couple of decades.

First, the two biggest parties in the land have shrunk in prestige and popularity. Neither the Likud nor the Labor party can win more than a third of the seats in the Knesset for itself. Second, at their expense the grab-bag of little parties—religious and secular, Jewish and Arab, Zionist, anti-Zionist, and non-Zionist, responsible and mad—have proliferated. Their combined strength in the present Knesset exceeds that of either the Likud or Labor alone.

Demographics are sometimes adduced to account for these developments. It is pointed out that, over the last generation or two, observant Israelis, and those who originated in Asia and Africa and are loosely known as Sephardim, have been having more children, and have been less liable to leave for New York or Los Angeles, than others of their countrymen. These statistics may be accurate, but they are not very enlightening. It does not necessarily follow from the birthrate and emigration figures that the predominant ideals and myths of the country when it was young should have been superseded. And the increase of the skullcapped and dark-skinned hardly makes it clear why the main right-wing party, Likud, has become quite as weak as Labor.

A better analysis would be broadly dialectical, fully conscious that politics is but the crude reflection of cultural shifts. The operative Zionist visions of the grandparents—whether humanist, socialist, or nationalist—have not been passed on to very many of the grandchildren. This should not be surprising, seeing that the visions were revolutionary and the revolution took place. Nor is Israel altogether unique in this. The failure of the Left especially to renew itself here is comparable to its failure elsewhere in the West. The kibbutzim are bankrupt, figuratively as well as literally, and left-wingers in the cities are recognizable by their snobbishness, despair, prosperity, nostalgia, and masochism.

Yet it is not only the social-democratic dream, the official dream thirty years ago, which has run out of steam. The Old Right, for more than a generation synonymous with Menachem Begin, is also in decline. It has steadily been losing votes since his retirement, on the one hand to nationalists who make him look like the soul of moderation, on the other hand to rabbi-worshippers. No longer do portraits of Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, and Begin decorate felafel stands. They have been replaced by the Lubavitcher rebbe, the Baba Sali (the late Sephardi Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira), and (yes) Rambo. It is as if a centrifugal force were shattering BG’s New Jew into a thousand old pieces.

The most spectacular product of this force at work has been Shas (“Sep hardi Torah Guardians”). This new haredi party, on the face of it, is only another team in a league where the prizes are jobs, money, and chauffeured Volvos. Shas, supported mainly by Jews of Moroccan extraction, is the first ethnic party in Israel to make a place for itself on the political map. It, or rather the conditions which brought it about, would sadden BG. To watch its young cadres working the phones is to recall that for years the Labor party patronized the Moroccans, and even in Begin’s Herut (later the Likud), they supplied the troops, while the Ashkenazim, to this day, remain the generals.

Yet the power game is not all. It is not even the essence. The rise of Shas reflects the genesis of a xenophobic religiosity among some Sephardim. None other than Shas’s top man in the Knesset, Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, a former professional soccer player, explained that the reason a train struck a school bus at a crossing, killing many children, was that there is too much desecration of the Sabbath in Israel.

In any case, the prestige and authority of the original Zionist culture, of the founders, has been eclipsed. The Six-Day War, when euphoria succeeded dread, the Yom Kippur War, when dread succeeded complacency, and the war in Lebanon, when the IDF found itself in Beirut without knowing why, accelerated the process. The politicians and generals found popular trust being withdrawn from them and reinvested, if anywhere, in rabbis. The two main parties faltered. By 1981, for the first time, Aguda had the balance of power. It used it to enter Begin’s coalition, at the price of getting money for its schools without supervision, a manifest violation of the status quo.

Seven years later, the three haredi parties individually and collectively broke through. Each of them, in the wake of last year’s election deadlock, was in a position to dictate, to make or break a Likud or Labor government. It went to their heads. At one point or another they demanded, and seemed to be promised, the Ministries of the Interior, Religious Affairs, Welfare, Housing, and Immigrant Absorption, the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee, stiffer Sabbath laws, stewardship of the national lottery, and, to break the camel’s back, that change in the Law of Return, popularly known as “Who is a Jew.”




The first law enacted by the first Knesset was the Law of Return in 1950, affirming the right of any Jew to enter Israel and become a citizen. But who is a Jew? The provisional government of the state had answered the question rather liberally two years before: a Jew is someone who says he is a Jew. Such a definition, fine for freethinking Jews right after Hitler, was unacceptable to others, descent in Halakhah being matrilinear. But it was eight years before the NRP bolted the government over the problem. This occurred when the Minister of the Interior, a member of one of the socialist Zionist parties, consented to register as Jewish the child of a marriage in which only the father was a Jew.

Governing without the NRP was inconvenient for BG. After two years, having canvassed rabbis and others worldwide, he gave in. He sent a letter to the NRP which included these words: “The government will maintain the status quo . . . in regard to matters of religion.” He also replaced the Interior Minister with an NRP man, who promptly went beyond the letter and issued a directive whereby registrations of Jews would be in accordance with Halakhah. “A Jew,” the directive to clerks read, “means a person born of a Jewish mother or who has been converted to Judaism.” However, the Supreme Court struck this down. The justices said that Halakhah was not legally binding and that the Interior Minister had exceeded his authority. If the government wished to redefine what a Jew was, it would have to pass a law in the Knesset.

This was done, not without the most earnest debate and Byzantine logrolling, ten years later, in 1970 during Golda Meir’s term as premier. The NRP seemed satisfied. Aguda was not. It demanded that as for conversions, only those carried out “in accordance with Halakhah” be honored. Year in, year out, it presented bills to that effect, which were not passed.

By the late 1970’s, the NRP and Menachem Begin’s Likud were backing the additional wording, each for its own reasons. Or rather, the NRP was doing it fairly sincerely, the Likud less so. The NRP’s face was changing with a change of generations—it was growing a beard and getting a faraway look in its eye. The Likud, having become the country’s leading party, had coalition arithmetic to worry about. By promising Aguda that he would do what he could for the amendment, Begin in 1977 got the haredim to support his coalition tacitly, and in 1981 actually brought them into the government. Whenever the Aguda and the new NRP tried to convert these promises into action, however, they were disappointed. Begin, an old-time liberal, refrained from imposing discipline, letting his people vote their consciences. The votes were close, but in the event the Knesset, including Arab and Communist legislators, always rejected the change.

The haredi and dati draft amendments continued to be routinely, persistently, religiously tabled after Begin’s retirement. Less was at stake politically after a national-unity government was made in 1984, since, when the Likud and Labor are forced to combine, the smaller parties are cut down to size. But there were still mini-crises arising from this issue or pseudo-issue. In 1986, for example, Shas’s Peretz quit the Interior Ministry after being obliged by the Supreme Court to register as a Jew an American immigrant, Shoshanna Miller, who had been converted by a Reform rabbi. Shas returned to the ministry only after Shamir, now premier, promised yet again that the Likud would do better. Soon after, Miller returned to Colorado, and the haredi parties, in the most recent Knesset elections, scored their breakthough.

At one point or another in the parleying last November and December, both Shamir and Peres promised Aguda that if it went into a narrow government with the Likud, or with Labor, it would finally get its way with Who is a Jew. The promise was only one of a pile of inducements offered to and extorted by the little parties. The pledges this time were in writing, not verbal. Probably neither Shamir nor Peres meant to honor them, yet circumstances made such solemn lies vital. If they disgusted some Israelis, they seem to have mortified most of the Jews in the rest of the world.



The uproar abroad took our bareheaded politicians by surprise. Who would have thought that American Jews, so comfortably at home, would panic over a few words more or less in some Israeli law? This unexpected reaction, as things developed, was not unwelcome—Shamir and Peres turned it to advantage in their poker games with the haredim on the way to another national-unity government. But the surprise was as honest as anything can be with politicians. “Yes, I was surprised that so many [American Jews] took it as a personal matter,” confessed Yossi Ben Aharon, director general of Shamir’s office. “It just goes to show that there are things which we in Israel don’t understand about them.”

That is putting it diplomatically. The one thing all Israelis understand, and in varying degrees resent, is the fact that, as much as our American cousins may love this country, they will not move here, will not join us. The very few who do come to stay are invariably dati’im and haredim, not at all representative of Mr. & Mrs. Average American Jew. So although the travesty played out by our politicians and rabbis was dismaying, and worse, to more than a few of us, the real issue—who shall be an authentic rabbi for the Jews who remain in Exile—was remote. And there’s the rub. So few Average American Jews and Average American Rabbis come to share our fate with us that even our most devoted hilonim would say that as far as rabbis are concerned, only what the foreign press calls the Orthodox are the genuine article. These Reform and Conservative padres, passing through with their correct political opinions, look and sound more like psychiatrists and college professors, and not very impressive or self-respecting psychiatrists and college professors at that.

The American Jewish envoys who came flying over to voice mass concern, grievance, and anger were soothingly reassured by our politicicans and chief rabbis alike that the amendment did not mean much. It certainly did not mean that the non-Orthodox—something like 85 percent of American Jews—were bad or partial Jews. These “dialogues,” probably not the last of their kind, always had a tragicomic, unspoken subtext.

What the bareheaded Israeli politicians were thinking but not saying was: “You people are basically spectators, not players. If you and your dubiously-converted spouses came here to live and vote, we wouldn’t have to have these squalid dealings with the rabbis.” Our establishment rabbis were thinking, but not saying: “You good, poor Jews are Jews, all right—but what about your grandchildren? Will a child who goes to ‘temple’ once in a while, and who is married in a ceremony presided over jointly by a ‘rabbi’ and a Catholic priest, be a Jew in any more serious sense than Woody Allen? We are seeking to de-legitimize your ‘rabbis’ because only if real Judaism has a monopoly can the Jewish people survive.” And the American Jews staying at the Hilton and the King David were thinking, but not saying: “We’re not afraid that America’s honeymoon with us may terminate, even though all such honeymoons have terminated in the past. America is different. And even if it does, we’re not afraid that because of any Israeli law we or our children will be refused refuge. The thing is, America is killing us with kindness. Most of us, by now, are Jews only thanks to Israel. Take that away, even by implication, and what are we?”

As usual, self-interest and what Weizmann called “lust for power” are compounded with idealism. On the one hand, there is no doubt that some of the “Orthodox” rabbis are sincerely, altruistically worried about the future if Jews and Judaism continue being watered down. On the other hand, it helps to be cynical—what we have here, among other things, is the latest tussle between competing guilds. The guild of divines which enjoys a closed shop in Israel due to the refusal of Reform and Conservative Jews to immigrate wishes to roll back the changes of the last couple of centuries and extend its cartel worldwide. That is understandable, and is understood by a great many Israelis who know their rabbis.

The twist is that even if Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbis were consigned to outer darkness and their congregants saved, it would only be the beginning, for as the situation in Israel shows, rabbis are a contentious bunch. Closed shop or no, impeccably non-Reform, non-Conservative, non-Reconstructionist rabbis here are constantly at each others’ throats. The ex-Sephardi and ex-Ashkenazi chief rabbis are not on speaking terms. The judgments of the courts appointed by the dati-run chief rabbinate, and the certificates of its kashrut inspectors, cut no ice with the various haredi sects, each of which has its own legal and dietary apparatus. These sects, furthermore, are often at daggers drawn, a given which Shamir and Peres capitalized on. In short, once some rabbis start degrading others in the name of unity and by means of Israeli law, where will it end?



Cynical and idealistic, self-interested and patriotic, Shamir and Peres gave the rabbis a lesson in politics, Israeli-style. Freshman member of the Knesset Rabbi Shlomo Ravitz of the Degel Hatorah (“Flag of the Torah”) party put it in a nutshell: “At the beginning, the religious parties tried to play the two big parties off against each other; at the end, both big parties played the religious parties off against themselves.” This was possible, if far from easy, because the “religious” are not one camp but many.

Degel, for example, is a new party formed to advance the interests of the Litvak (originally Lithuanian) mitnagdim (anti-hasidic) camp of haredim as against those of the hasidic dynasties grouped in Aguda. In this sense the fight dates from the 18th century. Personal animus at the top, filtering down intensely to the troops, is a feature of these long-lasting struggles. Degel’s mentor, the ninety-three-year-old Rabbi Eliezer Shach of Bnei Brak, is said not to be able to abide the eighty-seven-year-old Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, also known as the Lubavitcher rebbe of Brooklyn, who, by throwing the weight of his Habad Hasidim behind Aguda in the last elections, is believed to have doubled its representation in the Knesset. It is also Habad which has made a special crusade of Who is a Jew.

The ethnic factor, a ticklish one, enters in with Shas. As has been indicated, Shas is almost as much an expression of the Sephardi, especially the Moroccan, will-to-political-power as it is a religious phenomenon. No love is lost between Aguda and Shas, the latter holding the former guilty of condescension in the past and of dirty pool today.

Besides personalities and ethnicity, there is also the cash nexus. Each haredi party, and the sub-parties within it, have housing projects and schools to be financed, in large part out of Israeli government and ministerial budgets. The competition for these monies is ferocious, and the secular politicians, not to mention radio interviewers, make the most of it. One of the lowest, most revealing points of the government-making crisis was plumbed when Rabbi Ravitz and Aguda’s Rabbi Moshe Feldman were brought together on a telephone hookup by Radio Israel to discuss the subject of public funding for their respective yeshivas, much of which hung on who made what deal with which of the two big hiloni parties. The gleeful anchorman did not have to egg these pious Jews on—the airwaves dripped with venom.

It was lucky for the Jewish state that if the haredi politicians finally realized that Shamir and Peres had led them on, they knew from the start that they could trust each other even less. Another national-unity government was formed, the Law of Return is being left alone, and a collective sigh of relief was heard from American Jews. It was premature, however.

The haredi parties may have second thoughts about trying to delegitimize Reform and Conservative Judaism through the Knesset. But there is more than one way to skin a cat. The Law of Return may be amended in practice, if not on the books, by steering every new immigrant not born Jewish to a rabbinical court for “friendly advice” before being registered. This is exactly what Shas, which slunk into the government after loudly protesting that both Shamir and Peres had broken solemn promises to its sages, and which holds the portfolios of the Interior and Immigration, is doing. The upshot is a clutch of pending cases in the Supreme Court, including that of an immigrant who was converted by an Orthodox rabbi abroad but objects to having to have her conversion validated by the local rabbis.



So the problem of Who is a Jew/Who is a rabbi remains with us. It has not been resolved, it has merely been moved to the back burner, where it will boil up again, either the next time a government has to be formed or when the time comes for making peace with the Palestinians. It is a matter, after all, of principle.

Principle and self-interest—the two great motives of politics. Humiliated as they might have felt by their treatment at the hands of the secular politicians, worried as some of them may be by the fallout on their flocks and on the name of Judaism from such sordid farces, the behind-the-scenes bosses of the haredi parties, the octogenarian and nonagenarian sages, have no choice. They cannot bid farewell to politics—Shas, Aguda, and Degel, without skipping a beat, contested the municipal elections up and down the country in February. If the vision of a good Jewish society alone did not compel the burgeoning haredim, demographics and economics would goad them on mercilessly from behind.

The haredi population pyramid is shaped like that of the Palestinians—small on top, very wide on the bottom. Sixty percent of the haredim in Israel are under twenty-five years of age. This is a tribute to their regenerative powers, their optimistic dutifulness, but it also bodes trouble. If the men spend their lives studying the sacred texts, while their wives alternate giving birth and holding down low-paying jobs, how will this community or communities keep everyone housed, fed, and clothed?

The poverty in parts of Mea Shearim and Bnei Brak, and in Safed, Ashdod, Netivot, and right in Tel Aviv, where the haredim are staking out new ground, is already as bad as in any Palestinian refugee camp—eight or ten people in two or three rooms is not unusual. Their flocks may count on heaven, but the haredi shepherds must think more practically. Nor can angels from abroad be expected to foot the bill for all the competing sects. These have no choice, therefore, but to supplement their separate begging drives abroad with a steady tap into the Israeli treasury. So the haredi imperative is not to drop out of the political game, but to play it united and with the coolest possible heads.




Last year’s spectacle, it is widely agreed, must not recur. Yet chances are it will. Not only was it undignified—it might have concluded much less happily, far more dangerously, than it did. The conventional secular wisdom says that the way to keep the tail from wagging the dog right over the brink next time is at long last to pass what Ben-Gurion always desired but could never get—an electoral reform. And indeed, the Likud-Labor coalition pact includes a commitment to study reform seriously. Will anything come of it?

There are grounds to be less than sanguine. First, and inevitably, there seem to be almost as many reform plans as there are Jews. Some, especially in the Likud, want direct election of the Prime Minister, as in France. Others, especially in Labor, are against this, arguing that it would open the door for some charismatic demagogue, and are plumping instead for a change of the parliamentary system from proportional to constituency representation, again as in France. Meanwhile, Uriel Reichmann of Tel Aviv University, the country’s foremost expert on the subject, says a decent reform can only be three-pronged. It should adopt both of the above changes, plus something else Israel has never had—a bill of rights or constitution. Other people think the answer is to raise the minimum number of votes needed to win a Knesset s/?/?/?/

All such talk distresses the small parties, both skullcapped and bareheaded. Aguda not without reason, reckons it will be victimized by gerrymandering, while Yair Tsaban, head of the left-wing Mapam, maintains that the trouble is not in the system, it is in ourselves, in this society which in so many matters is divided against itself. He may be right. Nor can anyone, not even Professor Reichmann, be certain what the results of any reform would be. They might make this country even less governable.

Given the host of ideas, and the workings of the human and political mind as the memory of last year’s crisis fades and new ones flare, the chances of reform before the next general elections should probably be put at less than fifty-fifty. It can fairly confidently be predicted that the haredim are again going to be in the thick of things.

The next test may come sooner than 1992. It may come in the not-too-distant future if Yasir Arafat is able to convince not only the people in Foggy Bottom and on West End Avenue but also a more substantial number here that he can deliver peace for territory. Then the apparent questions will be ones of geopolitics, of demilitarized zones, early-warning stations, security guarantees, and so on. But the deeper debate will be over the great intangibles—who are we, what are we doing here, what have we been striving, dying, killing for? What is the nature of the world and of reality? What do we want, what can we get, and what are we commanded by reason, conscience, or God to do? In other words, it will also be another act, maybe the climactic one, in the Cultural-Religious drama.



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