Days of atonement
Visiting Israel just weeks before the current Gaza conflict, Sally Feldman found that rising religious bigotry is one of the biggest barriers to peace
A couple of weeks ago I attended my niece’s wedding in Jerusalem. She looked suitably ecstatic as she circled coquettishly seven times round her husband-to-be and watched as he stamped on the traditional wine glass and relatives clamoured to the chuppa to offer their blessings. Afterwards, endless lavish dinner courses were served chaotically, interspersed between rounds of riotous Hebrew dancing, the bride and groom lifted on chairs and paraded round the stamping, whooping crowds to the rhythm of a klezmer band. Among the guests was my cousin Moishe, ultra-orthodox, ultra-bearded, dark-suited, cradling to his vast chest a tiny baby, his tenth child, as he swayed back and forth in time to the communal chanting of grace after the meal.
The next day I visited a group of old friends who had emigrated from the UK in the 1960s, like so many other idealistic, secular Jews. They still live in Jerusalem but are increasingly disillusioned by what has happened to the country they helped to build. Many of their children are refuseniks who would rather go to prison than serve in the occupied territories. My friend Jonathan had spent his career working with Arab colleagues making educational materials to cross the divide. Now you can’t cross the divide and he has difficulty contacting his erstwhile collaborators over the wall. They’re wondering how long they can stay.
Everyone there is talking about the new peace, about whether Obama is going to be able to broker a settlement in the wake of his victory. What it comes down to is 1967: will Israel hand back all the territories gained during those momentous six days? And a deciding factor will be not just the tensions between Arabs and Israelis, not just the stance of the United States and its massive authority, nor even just the status of this tiny territory as a major east-west ideological battle-ground, but a more internal struggle: the struggle between my cousin Moishe and my friend Jonathan; between secular, idealist Israel and the encroachment of orthodox religion.
This is not a simple polarity. There are still some ultra-orthodox sects who are virulently opposed to the existence of Israel, since they believe it shouldn’t have been established until the Messiah had come. Others are less interested in Zionism than in religious observance, in contrast to those who militantly support expansionism. Among the more progressive Israelis there’s also a vast spectrum spanning Jewish traditionalists with socialist leanings to those more recent settlers who are passionate secularists. Nonetheless religion remains the big divide because it is the source of so many of the tensions and inequalities that are splintering the country.
What Jonathan dreamed of, in common with other early settlers, was to build a state which would be governed by progressive rather than religious principles. That’s an idealism shared by many of the contributors to a newly published collection of essays, A Time to Speak Out, which emanates from the establishment of Independent Jewish Voices. This group of British Jews is committed to the original ideals of a just Israel. But they are also determined to express their opposition to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. It’s a defiant stand against those established Jewish organisations which regard such dissent as betrayal.
“There is one charge against Jews who criticise Israel that seems to me particularly misguided, and that is the charge that we are self-hating Jews,” writes Jacqueline Rose. And that charge can be vicious. Rose quotes Melanie Phillips’ accusation that those who signed the Independent Jewish Voices declaration were “Jews for genocide”, belonging to the “lamentable tradition” of Jews who “want to destroy the Jewish people”.
And these outspoken Jews are not only castigated for fuelling anti-Semitism: they are themselves branded anti-Semitic for daring to criticise Israel. While many of the writers would acknowledge that anti-Zionist sentiments can be synonymous with anti-Semitism, and can be a useful weapon for racists, they certainly don’t accept that this is the norm any more than they accept the equally blanket comparisons with Nazi Germany made by some critics of Israel.
In a meticulously researched and thoughtful essay, Anne Karpf analyses the accusations and counter-accusations of “Nazi” between Palestinians and Israelis. Both summon the holocaust to accuse their enemies. Israeli occupation is falsely equated with Nazi genocide, while Arab anti-Jewish sentiment is similarly seen as tantamount to Nazi fascism. Karpf acknowledges that Israeli paranoia is fuelled by such anti-Semitism, by the Iranian President’s recent declaration that Israel must be wiped out, by the hostility of surrounding enemies, of mortar attacks and suicide bombings. Meanwhile the Palestinians have obvious and ever-present reason to feel persecuted by the iniquitous conditions of the occupation and by fear of its escalation.
Karpf deplores these unfounded accusations which characterise both sides, calling for an end to what she describes as a grotesque battle for victimhood. She favours instead a new rapprochement. Warning of the dangers of conflating anti-Semitism as one continuum, one grand narrative, she calls for a more balanced reaction to the claim that it is on the rise.
It’s a hard claim to resist in the light of the MP Denis MacShane’s newly published analysis of the rise of anti-Semitism, Globalising Hatred. His study stems from the findings of a Parliamentary committee on anti-Semitism in Britain, which he chaired. “Our report showed a pattern of fear among a small number of British citizens . . . that is not acceptable in a modern democracy. Synagogues attacked. Jewish schoolboys jostled on public transportation. Rabbis punched and knifed. British Jews feeling compelled to raise millions to provide private security for their weddings and community events.”
But is there really anything new in this latest outbreak of racist attacks? MacShane believes that there is. “Today’s anti-Semitism is not just traditional Jew-hatred, nor can it be reduced to a variant of racism. It is a growing component element of international politics. Anti-Semitism is exported by a number of states and has an impact on geopolitics that should not be underestimated. It is both the smash on the head of a rabbi walking home in north London and the push on a button that blows people to oblivion on a London underground train a few kilometres away. Today, it is the world’s most pernicious ideology and practice, international in its reach and capable of taking different forms from the university campus to the upper-class dinner party.”
Such a stance, argues Antony Lerman in his contribution to A Time To Speak Out, exemplifies the growing polarities within Jewish circles. “Pro-Israel and Zionist groups have interpreted intensified criticism of Israel and expressions of anti-Zionism as evidence of a ‘new anti-Semitism’ more virulent and dangerous than anything since the Holocaust.”
There’s little point in debating the extent of this fear, or how far it is justified. What is more significant is how to react to racism and how to suffocate it. Lerman argues that there’s an increasingly acute rift among Jews between what he defines as particularism and universalism. “The particularists see a vigilant ethnocentrism as the answer to what they perceive as multiple threats to Jewish life. The universalists believe that the reassertion of universal values and a Jewish tradition of social justice and vigorous argument are the only path both to a just peace for Israel-Palestine and to a Jewish future engaged and at ease with the world.”
Those Haredi – ultra-orthodox, cultish Jews – pacing the lanes of old Jerusalem in their tall hats, long curling sideburns and thick black great coats have clearly chosen the former path. For such sects, the emphasis on difference has taken on a massive symbolic importance. It’s an announcement of separateness, almost an invitation to be reviled. But what is surprising is that these extreme frummers, as they’re dubbed by more liberal Jews, appear to be on the rise.
And this phenomenon is reflected by their increasing portrayal in contemporary literature, from the most literary novels to thrillers and romances. Orthodox Jews are becoming such stock figures that they’re practically a genre in their own right: candle-rippers, perhaps, or shtick lit.
Zöe Heller’s latest novel, The Believers, for example, is centred round a left-wing Jewish New York family, the Litvinoffs, whose daughter Rosa is attracted to orthodox Judaism. Heller is making the somewhat obvious connection between different forms of fundamental beliefs, Rosa’s devout communism replaced by a yearning for mysticism. Her father, a conviction atheist, regards her betrayal “as an act of parricidal malice”. And even Rosa herself could see ”the high comedy of this spiritual seduction: a Litvinoff daughter, a third generation atheist, an enemy of all forms of magical thinking, wandering into a synagogue one day and finding her inner Jew. But there it was. Something had happened to her, something she could not ignore nor deny.”
Rosa’s spiritual journey is far from unique. She is a typical example of the Ba’al Teshuva – meaning “one who has done repentance” – a movement of secular Jews who are returning to the fold of orthodox religion. It’s a movement which has parallels in the Muslim community, where assimilated western women are baffled by their daughters’ adoption of the hijab, their sons’ militant beard-sporting and devotion to the exigencies of the Koran.
A similar conversion is the focus of Reva Mann’s extraordinary biographical tale, The Rabbi’s Daughter. After a wild, promiscuous, drug-crazed adolescence in reaction against her rabbinical father, she is drawn to yeshiva study in Israel, and marries Simcha, an equally devout Ba’al Teshuva convert. As if paying penance for his irreligious past, he becomes ever more devout, obsessive and sexless. When a swarthy builder comes to repair their kitchen, Reva is struck by the contrast between his libidinous, sexual allure and the pale, shuffling gait of Simcha, who, emerging from the bathroom muttering the prayer for after going to the toilet, interrupts her erotic fantasies as she watches the builder tearing down a wall.
Even popular crime fiction has discovered the potential of sectarian Jewish settings. In Sam Bourne’s pacy thriller The Righteous Men the plot centres round a New York hasidic community – one of the more extreme Haredi sects – suspected of a murderous conspiracy. Bourne is clearly enchanted by the sheer implausibility of this most private and devout of tribes harbouring crime and destruction within its sanctuary. But like Mann and like Heller, he suffuses his portrayal of this unknown, hidden world with a kind of awe, as if somehow these ascetic people may have access to ancient truths and wisdoms, despite or even perhaps because of their strange customs and outmoded practices.
But the novelist Naomi Ragen, probably the most prolific chronicler of tales from the Jewish orthodoxy, is more sceptical. An American who has been living in Jerusalem for over 20 years, Ragen is herself an orthodox Jew who is nonetheless keenly aware of the more unpalatable realities of life among the fundamentalists and is a vocal campaigner for the rights of women in these closed communities. In her novels she has fun satirising their hypocrisies and their quaint ways, their bewigged women, their obsessive rules, their bizarre garb and their outmoded customs. Yet she’s also spoken out against the evils within their secretive society. Recently, the Israeli police uncovered some horrifying incidents of child abuse among four different orthodox communities. These ranged from molestation and rape to terrible cruelty to young children, in several cases at the hands of seemingly devout mothers. At the same time, the number of calls to a hotline for battered Haredi women has jumped from 477 in 2004 to 1402 last year.
But among the Haredi, frozen in time in the ghettos of 18th-century Poland and Russia, social workers are regarded as child-snatchers and the police as Cossacks. They traditionally resent any intrusion into their cloistered community, though this recent spate of atrocities has forced a new openness, encouraged by campaigners like Naomi Ragen. “We should examine ourselves and not close our eyes to why these things are happening,” she asserted. “These shocking things had to come out. There was no more room left under the carpet.”
Deplorable acts among these cultish communities are not just confined to the home. For the orthodox lobby in Israel is gaining pernicious influence in public life. The recent skirmishes surrounding the election of the mayor of Jerusalem highlight how far religious fanaticism is infiltrating secular life. Once a tiny minority in Jerusalem, the ultra-orthodox now constitute an estimated 38 per cent of Jerusalem’s Jewish population. Now that they have begun to occupy previously secular neighbourhoods, they are demanding that there be no traffic on Saturdays, that neighbours should wear more modest clothing and women should avoid showing their bare arms or legs in public.
Alarmingly, Jerusalem has recently witnessed the emergence of religious vigilantes, operating very like those in extreme Arabic states. “There are eyes and ears all over the place, very similar to what you hear about in countries like Iran,” says Naomi Ragen. Two alleged members of a secret modesty patrol were recently arrested in connection with the severe beating of a woman accused of “improper relations” with married men. Another man was arrested for setting fire to non-kosher shops and recently a gang of yeshiva students set fire to hundreds of copies of the New Testament. Fundamentalists are increasingly turning on Israel’s gay communities, with some rabbis proposing a “compulsory healing treatment” and/or a period of “education in a closed institution”.
The surprise election of a secular candidate, Nir Barkat, as mayor will not bring much comfort for the 250,000 or so Palestinians in Jerusalem, most of whom did not participate in the election since to do so would be to acknowledge the legitimacy of Israel’s claim on East Jerusalem. You can see their point. For despite his claims to champion equality, Barkat has promised to build more illegal settlements in Arab East Jerusalem. It’s a perfect paradigm for the complex set of constraints, feuds and loyalties that permeate national Israeli politics.
Though relatively small in numbers, the religious parties in the Knesset are increasingly featuring as coalition partners in secular governments, often able to hold governments to ransom by threatening withdrawal of support over sensitive matters of policy. They have never set the national agenda or actively shaped Israel’s foreign policy and its relations with the Palestinians. Illegal settlements could only have come about with the support of the secular ruling parties. But the religiously motivated colonisers do garner spiritual support from them.
So now it is the religious right who pose the greatest internal threat to the peace process. Because the most contentious pre-1967 territories are the ones most dear to some of the more extreme ultra-orthodox Jews. Though there are also plenty of equally militant secular colonisers, it’s the religious fundamentalists who tend to be the most rabid and active illegal settlers, regarding it as a messianic mission to drive out the infidels. And then there is Jerusalem itself, symbolically inflated by all three major religions into a major focus for spiritual claims. And they’re not going to let it go without a deadly battle, an Armageddon, a fight for ideology. Religion, as always, is what’s getting in the way.
This continued power of religion would certainly not have been predicted by those idealistic secular Jews, like so many of the contributors to A Time To Speak Out, who set out to build an Israel free of tyranny and prejudice. In his sadly elegant account of the complicity of Israeli universities in state atrocities, Stan Cohen connects the resulting loss of integrity, of academic freedom, with the wider disintegration of values and ideals.
For the radical, angry voices in the book, he observes, “were influenced – directly or through cultural osmosis – by the politics of the 1960s.” And it’s a result of this shared tradition that so many of these essays are imbued with a bewildered sense of disappointment. That this new state, filled with such idealism and hope, should have disintegrated so terribly, is the real tragedy, the real betrayal that they are striving to analyse.
And that point is forcefully made by Howard Cooper in his essay in A Time To Speak Out, “Living in Error”. Cooper quotes the Israeli novelist David Grossman, whose son Uri died in the last Lebanon war. “The death of young people is a horrible, outrageous waste,” said Grossman. “But no less horrible is the feeling that the state of Israel has, for many years now, criminally wasted not only the lives of its sons and daughters, but also the miracle that occurred here – the great and rare opportunity that history granted it, the opportunity to create an enlightened, properly functioning democratic state that could act in accordance with Jewish and universal values. How did it happen? When did we lose even the hope that we might someday be able to live different, better lives? More than that – how is it that we continue today to stand aside and watch mesmerised, as madness and vulgarity, violence and racism take control of our home?”
Grossman declares himself to be without religious beliefs at all, but uses the rhetoric of religion, the idea of a miracle, to harness human hearts. “The ‘miracle’ has nothing to do with a transcendent cosmic anthropomorphised force intervening in a supernatural way in human events,” explains Cooper. “There is nothing ‘divine’ about Israel’s coming-into-being. On the contrary, in Grossman’s secular, post-enlightenment narrative, an impersonal force – ‘history’ – granted Israel the opportunity it is now squandering.”
So the secular, argues Cooper, has taken over from the religious in the mission to champion morality, humanity and justice – a mission that is ever more urgent. But as I wandered uneasily through the narrow lanes of old Jerusalem, haggled in the Arab market stalls, lowered my eyes at the long-coated devotees kissing the stones of the Wailing Wall, drank in the discordant sounds of live jazz from a street café mingling with calls to prayer from minarets and the ancient drone of Torah chants, that mission seemed almost as distant as the dreams that once envisaged an everlasting peace.
Globalising Hatred by Denis MacShane (Weidenfeld) and A Time to Speak Out, edited by Ann Karpf et al (Verso) are out now