Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Tipping Point

The notion that there is something sacred, not merely practical, about the concept of k’lal yisrael—the indivisible unity of the Jewish people—is a very old idea, one that goes back at least as far as the poet whose words became the central part of the version of the Amidah we recite on Shabbat afternoons, the part that suggests that the unity of the people below is intended specifically to reflect the indivisible, undifferentiated one-ness of God on high. The idea is thus that the Jewish people, at least in theory, proclaims the unity of God not merely by declaiming the Shema twice daily but actually by modeling it in terms of the way they conduct their affairs—the way we conduct our affairs—in such a way so as to make of many Jewish people one nation, one people, one extended family.

That’s the theory, at any rate. (The expression k’lal yisrael, literally “the collective entity of Israel,” appears once in the Talmud, but without any clear theological overtone simply as an expression denoting the Jewish nation in general, as opposed to any subgroup within the people. The more usual rabbinic term for what moderns seem to want to call klal yisrael is k’nesset yisrael, literally “the congregation of Israel,” what Solomon Schechter slightly infelicitously called “catholic Israel.” Why modern usage has chosen to favor the former term over the latter, I’m not sure. Nor is it correct to say that the expression k’nesset yisrael has fallen entirely into desuetude: I noticed it just the other day in an essay by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief Orthodox rabbi of Great Britain, where he wrote: “The subject of covenantal promises is not the sub-community of pious Jews but k’nesset yisrael, the collective entity of the people of Israel….”) But whatever we call it, the concept that part of being a faithful member of the House of Israel means accepting as brethren all our co-religionists, including both those with whom we disagree about details as well as those whose entire approach to religion we find intellectually indefensible and morally off-putting.

It’s an easy sermon to preach. It’s distinctly harder and more challenging actually to take the concept to heart and truly to believe in it. Indeed, the events of the last few weeks in Beit Shemesh and elsewhere in Israel have pushed me almost to the point at which I wonder if any normal person can truly embrace the notion of k’lal yisrael without descending so far into the realm of the absurd so as to make the entire undertaking meaningless. Have you been following the story? It’s beyond upsetting. But it’s also important to take seriously and thoughtfully. As someone who has recited the words cited above as part of his afternoon prayers every Shabbat for almost four decades, I have a lot invested in the concept. And so, I think, should we all.

The story begins with a little girl, one Naama Margolese, age eight. Little Naama, an olah from the U.S., has the misfortune to live in Beit Shemesh, a bastion of haredi Jews, where she has been the subject of abuse, including being spat at, cursed at, and having the word “whore” screamed at her…for walking to school dressed like a normal Israeli child, i.e., absent the trappings of ultra-Orthodoxy her neighbors favor for themselves and their daughters. The incident caught the attention of the Israeli public and became a kind of flashpoint for the anger average Israelis feel towards the kind of deeply misogynistic, anti-everybody-but-us policies that have become regular fare in many cities in Israel. When police in Beit Shemesh, for example, attempted to remove posters the Haredim had put up demanding that women not walk on the same sidewalks as men, they were taunted and threatened by people who openly and shamelessly called them Nazis, a term that has become increasingly devalued, it seems, with each successive week of catcalls and insults hurled at Israeli policemen attempting merely to do their jobs.

Thousands of Israelis attended a demonstration in Beit Shemesh, a suburban town to the west of Jerusalem, in an attempt publicly to oppose the kind of extremism we in the Diaspora tend to view as peculiar but essentially benign—why else would so many of us decorate our homes with pictures of happy haredim dancing around in merry circles?—but which Israelis are beginning to understand as a true threat not only to the reasonableness of maintaining faith in the concept of k’lal yisrael, but to the social fabric of the Israeli state itself.

One thing appears to have led to another. Increasingly, Israeli women have refused to move to the back of the bus when haredi men have ordered them to do so. (That kind of gender-based segregation in public transportation is formally illegal, but has been the de facto rule for years on certain bus lines, apparently, that pass through haredi neighborhoods. It is the de facto reality that people are no longer prepared meekly to accept.) One Tanya Rosenblit, now being hailed as the Rosa Parks of Israel, began a kind of chain reaction a few weeks ago simply by refusing to give up her seat on the 451 bus traveling from Ashdod to Jerusalem merely because her presence in the front of the bus was upsetting to some of the male passengers. Then, on December 28, a haredi man on a bus in Jerusalem insisted that a female IDF soldier move to the back of the bus. When she refused to budge, she was subjected to verbal abuse so vile and extreme that the police arrested the man who was harassing her and charged him not only with misconduct on a public conveyance, but actually with sexual harassment. The tensions between the haredim—the extreme Orthodox who make up 10% of the Israeli population and 14% of the Israeli Jewish population—merely escalated from there, with violence and hysteria characterizing both sides: there have been several incidents reported in which haredi children were intimidated, insulted, and assaulted by people opposed to their parents’ extremism.

A new low, however, was reached on New Year’s Eve, when a huge demonstration of haredim in Jerusalem’s Kikar Hashabbat square featured large numbers of demonstrators dressed up like concentration camp prisoners, complete with striped uniforms and yellow “Jude” badges, the point—not subtly or covertly, but completely openly and defiantly—being that what the Nazis did to the Jews of Europe, the State of Israel is doing to the haredim. The tsunami of criticism that followed—including by leaders of marginally less extreme elements of the haredi world, like the Shas party, as well as by almost every political party in Israel, plus the leadership of Yad Vashem, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and other organizations devoted to preserving the memory of the martyrs of the Shoah—does not seem to have impressed the demonstrators, who seem delighted to have caught the public’s attention with something as simple to assemble as prisoner’s garb. Indeed, an official of the organization that organized the protest was cited in the Jerusalem Post as saying that he had “no regret at all” about the use of Shoah imagery. As, I’m sure, does he not!

To us on the outside—and to me personally—this series of events is emblematic of how far from the Zionist ideal of a free Jewish people working shoulder-to-shoulder in the Land of Israel to create a state that reflects the finest Jewish values we have strayed. The haredi community in Israel is part of k’lal yisrael. They are pre-modern in countless ways. They seem proud of the degree to which they have rejected values that most of us find not only basic to life in a democracy, but basic to our sense of ethics and decency. I’m reminded of a rabbi, one of the few haredi types with whom I’ve had a personal relationship, who once bragged to me that he hadn’t ever read a book about Judaism, Jewish culture, or Jewish history that could possibly have challenged his faith or encouraged him to think about things even slightly differently than he had previously. This was years ago, but I’m sure he still hasn’t. As also haven’t the people in Kikar Shabbat who sewed yellow stars onto their kapotehs. I would like to think that was simply an act of ignorance undertaken by people whose knowledge of even relatively recent modern history is so rudimentary and so little sophisticated that they simply cannot see how grotesque it is even to suggest obliquely, let alone to say out loud and explicitly, that the way haredim are treated in modern Israel is related even tangentially to the way Jews were treated in Nazi Europe. I’d like to think that, but when I look into my heart I know that that is not what I really think.

What I really think is that the culture wars are only beginning, that the ultimate struggle to rescue Israel from the haredim is going to be as long, as protracted, and as painful as the struggle to win political recognition from the neighbors. I believe with all my heart in the concept of k’lal yisrael. But I also know that there is something counterintuitive about including in that concept people who themselves appear totally to have rejected it, who have made religious and political extremism into a virtue. There is hope, however. There are many in Israel, including many who are not formally members of Masorti congregations, who believe that it is entirely possible to be faithful to the commandments and to believe in the k’lal yisrael concept and to consider moral development to be something to embrace as a great good rather than to reject as something inherently evil. There are many Israelis who understand that the extremism of the haredi community—extremism that does not bridle, even, at insulting the memory of the k’doshim for the sake of making political hay—is not merely too much of a good thing, but something itself inimical to the future wellbeing of the state. Clearly, we have reached a tipping point. Where Israel goes from here will be the 2012 news story that will count in the long run.

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