Shlomo Ben-Ami sounded exasperated. “We are a society living at a high decibel level without a moment of rest,” Israel’s Internal Security Minister said in a newspaper interview last week.
What Israel needed from its leaders were the kind of “fireside chats” President Roosevelt used to give to Americans. But instead of calming influences, there was denunciation and name-calling. “We have a raucous political dialogue in which everyone is a ‘Nazi’ or a ‘traitor’ or just your average ‘enemy of Israel.”
It all seems a far cry from the halcyon days of the young Israel of “kol yisrael haverim” (“all Jews are comrades”). Of course, the past is never as rosy as we make out — recall, for instance, Menahem Begin’s incitement of the march on the Knesset during the tempestuous German reparations debate in 1952. Even so, any observer who scans the Israeli press could not fail to be disturbed by the incidence of acts of civil violence — or the potential for more.
As the proposed borders between Israel and a would-be state of Palestine emerge, 40,000 settlers may find themselves cut off from contiguous Israeli territory and face the choice of staying under those conditions, or evacuation.
Only last week, Rabbi Zalman Melamed, head of the Council of Rabbis of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, urged settlers not to resort to physical and verbal violence if that fateful day arrives — particularly if, as in the Israeli army’s move against settlers determined to stay put in
contravention of peace terms reached with Egypt, they were in effect forced to leave.
“If, God forbid, we Chasidim in Jerusalem reach a situation in which they shoot at us, we will not return fire against our brothers. We will be prepared to be hurt, but not hurt,” he said.
While this may have been a warning against the use of force, the high moral tone in which it was couched, nevertheless, sticks in the throat of many secularists. They see it as symptomatic of a “them and us” attitude, a presumption of different moral standards which serves to widen the divisions between secular and religious.
At a conference at University College, London last month, Hebrew University sociologist Nahman Ben-Yehuda declared that there was “a cultural war going on in Israel,” noting that many haredim regard the secular as travelling in an “empty wagon.”
“Clearly the contempt and scorn that ultra-Orthodox and many Orthodox Jews have for every other Jew who is not like them are not just a matter of sterile political discussion,” he said. Their attitudes were expressed in action and political demands.
From the haredi viewpoint, Israeli secularism has lost its way and become the carrier of all that is bad in Western society. It tramples on religious sensibilities, symbolised by the megaphone politics of Tommy Lapid’s anti- clerical party, Shinui and abetted by the liberal press.
Torah-true Jews, they believe, should therefore erect an iron wall against spiritual pollution and the influences of modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah to protect their children and their community.
As if to underline the fears of the haredim, Israeli society is not changing for the better. Last week the state prosecutor, Edna Arbel stated that the increasing civil violence in Israeli society could not be tackled without a massive injection of resources.
In the last two months, there have been 15 murders — involving road rage, a fight over the ownership of a deckchair, the dislike of a father for his daughter’s boyfriend. In 1999, there was an 18-per-cent rise in violence within schools.
But the attempt to keep out secular influences has ironically spawned the phenomenon of haredi counter-violence.
Critics like Ben-Yehuda argue that acts of religious violence are not isolated but are an ideologically driven attempt to push Israel down the road to a theocratic state. Moreover, the violence mocks the claims of higher moral values made by some religious Jews.
Yet it is important to make a distinction between the violence enacted by the national religious camp and the haredim. The former have struggled to settle the West Bank and to resist attempts to come to a political accommodation with Palestinian nationalism.
Such ideological passion has led members of this camp to commit numerous acts of terrorism in recent years — the Jewish underground in the 1980s, Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of Muslims at prayer in Hebron in 1994 and of course, Yigal Amir’s assassination of Yitzhak Rabin the following year.
While Amir could cite Jewish law and the biblical example of Pinchas killing his fellow Jew, Zimri, to justify his action, the haredim rave not followed this path. They may have engaged in petty violence, but not murder.
Haredi militancy, in fact, stems from fierce opposition to the concept of Zionism and a modern Jewish state. Agudat Yisrael was established in 1912 to serve as a political umbrella or strictly Orthodox groups such as the Lubavitch to combat the heresy of Zionism.
Attitudes may have softened immediately after the Shoah, and the rise of the State of Israel. But some radical elements began to make their presence felt in the 1950 and 1960s, staging vehement street protests in Jerusalem. Their argument was that a truly Jewish state could arise only with the coming of the Messiah. Israel was simply a state with Jews, like any other, except that they were governed by Jews instead of non-Jews.
The argument is based on the idea recorded in the Talmud that the people of Israel adhered
to a set of oaths: they would not force God’s hand in bringing about messianic times, go en masse to the Holy Land or rebel against the nations of the world.
Haredi activism was motivated not by a concern for the West Bank or even a desire for theocratic change in a state which they did not recognise, but only to stop secularism from encroaching on their spiritual territory. Their le was “not in my own backyard.”
In Jerusalem, that backyard was Mea She’arim and its environs. But the Six-Day War resulted in the expansion of Jerusalem and brought with it the end of haredi isolationism. A new generation of radical haredim, albeit minority, now took up the struggle against restaurants open on Friday nights, football games on Shabbat, sexually provocative advertisements at bus stops, archaeological excavations, other interpretations of Judaism and Jewishness, the Women of the Wall, Christian proselytism and the Shabbat opening of roads in haredi areas.
Israeli academics such as Menachem Friedman and Ehud Sprinzak have written about the concept of limited violence which radical haredim have practised, despite an often robust verbal violence. The traditional idea that a Jewish life is sacred and that Jewish passivity in waiting for the Messiah outweighs any call to arms ensured that killings did not take place.
In his book, “Brother against Brother,” Ehud Sprinzak quotes from a declaration by Agudat Yisrael against the Irgun and Lehi undergrounds in the 1940s: “Terrorism is an alien branch in the vineyard of loyal Judaism, a rotten fruit of secular political parties which educate for the admiration of the power of the fist and the hands of Esau.”
But such quietism was not enough to prevent the use of intimidation later. A 1987 Hebrew University study showed that a new brand of violence — involving harassment of neighbours and single women, apartment break-ins and fire-bombings — marked a movement away from the relatively docile activism of the 1950s. The recent attempt to set fire to a Masorti synagogue — if, as has been widely suggested, although not yet proven, it was perpetrated by Orthodox militants — would be in keeping with this trend.
The new militancy can probably be linked to the sense of empowerment developed by the haredim over the last 30 years. The strictly Orthodox community is now fully represented in the Knesset and, in conjunction with Sephardi ethnic, Russian immigrant and national religious groupings, can pack enough punch to bring about the downfall of governments.
Radical haredi leaders have so far been successful in drawing a line between verbal violence or physical abuse — unlike the national religious camp, as the examples of Yigal Amir and Baruch Goldstein illustrate all too well.
Before one rushes to judgment, it is worth repeating the challenge of Moses and Aaron (in Numbers): “Should you be angry at the entire congregation because one man has sinned?” But while individuals are responsible for their own villainous acts, there is a wider moral accountability for having created the conditions which allowed it to happen. The Rabin murder was preceded by an atmosphere of incitement and blind vilification by many opponents of the Oslo Accord.
When a contemporary Torah sage denounces a secular opponent as “Amalek,” his intention may be simply to express his horror at what he sees as arrant godlessness: it is not a licence to his followers to go out and literally fulfil the Biblical command to kill the Amalekites.
But then where is the dividing line between a passionate opinion and an inflammatory command? Religious teachings are not understood in the same way by all listeners. And as we have seen, it takes only one misfit to go over the edge. Yigal Amir was seen as neither evil nor deranged before he killed Mr Rabin, just as another committed activist with strong views.
Jewish Chronicle 7 July 2000