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Defending Israel Against Its Right-Wing Jews

In the Jewish struggle around Zionism there were at least three strands in opposition so fierce that it was evident that the very meaning of “the people Israel” was at stake. The first of these was a vast religious cohort, at once immensely learned or purported to have such learning and having, as well, the authority of the sages. Or the ages. While ongoing study and “trust in the Lord” constituted their program, they practiced a politics that was fundamentally anti-political. God was both their instrument and their end. A second vision emerged in Europe, from European socialism, to be exact, and it was typified by the Jewish Labor Bund, organized primarily in Poland but also elsewhere in eastern Europe in the belief that peoplehood would flourish through the Yiddish language and independent communitarian arrangements made with the mostly anti-semitic regimes of the region. The bright future of socialism underpinned the whole enterprise. Of course, it wasn’t really an enterprise. It was a dream—alas, closer to a delusion. My own Jewish upbringing was touched by this apparition. Here is the last line of a Godless and prayer-less Sabbath hymn: “Yiddish vort host upgeheet undser tsar un undser freyd.” Or in a rough English translation: “Yiddish word, you have protected our sorrows and our joys.” Protected, indeed. Perhaps “ward” or “guardian” is more fitting. Still, it was not what it made itself out to be.

The third was a variety of Jewish assimilationist programmatics entailing a denigration of the very idea of universal beliefs connecting through the sinews of a scattered nation one Jew to another. Starting with the demeaning Napoleonic formula “Frenchmen of the Mosaic persuasion,” these programmatics flourished during the nineteenth century especially in England, Germany, and France where, in 1896, the career of the citoyen juif was collapsed in the delirium of the unpatriotic Jew, international banker, socialist conspirator, traitor, and spy. True, it limped along longest in the Kaiser’s empire and in the mixed autarchies stemming from the Austro-Hungarian empire. And it collapsed there more bloodily than in France. Still, after Captain Dreyfus and despite his ultimate court-adjudged rectitude, it was mostly pretense. L’affaire Dreyfus—there was a kindred legal scandal, l’affaire Zola—was a turning point in the history of liberal Europe.

In any case, the European citizen Jew did not survive the twentieth century. He had been literally wiped out in the gas ovens of the Nazi empire. And what was left of this Jew in the Communist utopias was, well, virtually nothing. Except that it was Zionism that rescued the remnant, the Zionism that had been so ridiculed and dismissed by both the ultra-pious and the secular heretics, apikorsim, according to the lingo of those who guarded the gates of the faith. Of course, that Zionism had altered the working paradigm of Jewish history. It was the Jewish state that rescued a million Jews from the Soviet Union and its miserable satellites, and it was also that state, even in its very infancy, that rescued 800,000 Jews from their dhimmi status out of the Maghreb all the way to Arab Baghdad (actually Jewish Baghdad) and to Isfahan and Shiraz in Persia. Some of these Jews descended from the Exile following the destruction of the First Temple in 535 BCE. Old communities, indeed.

Verdi’s Nabucco is based on this saga, and its “Va Pensiero” or “Song of the Slaves” has been called the most popular operatic chorus in existence. Before Hatikva, “The Hope,” written in 1886, was declared the official Zionist hymn, Verdi’s melody was sung at proto-Zionist meetings all over the continent: “Remember the fate of Jerusalem.” Almost uniformly at contemporary performances of the opera, and at present there are more and more frequent performances in America and Europe, once “Va Pensiero” is sung it is sung again, in tribute to both the passion of the music and the passion of the narrative. Arturo Toscanini conducted the piece with thousands of singers at Verdi’s funeral in 1901. If you have even just five minutes to spare for a rewarding melody and a rewarding message, listen to any one of the following: Nana Mouskouri, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavorotti, Andrea Bocelli, Kiri Te Kanawa.

The vision of the slaves in Babylon was fulfilled existentially in 1948 and then definitively in 1967. The first Jewish polity in two millennia has now been around for 64 years. And in Jewry the old formations, ones that many Zionists assumed to be near extinction, have been revived or, to be precise, have revived themselves. Not socialism, heaven forfend. There is a probably apocryphal tale told about David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, taking his grandson to the ultra-orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem early in the history of the state. There were perhaps a few hundred pious Jews living in that sector of the city at the time, maybe a little more. Ben Gurion was certain that their kind of piety had very little future and that Jews like these would disappear. The prime minister wanted his young kin to see the phenomenon before it vanished. But it has not, and it won’t.

You will not see many (or really any) of these Jews in Tel Aviv central. Still, in Jerusalem and in Safed and in communities “from Dan to Beersheva,” a phrase used eight times in the Hebrew Bible, and southwards to Eilat, the truly pious are not only seen but are a powerful force because the political system empowers minority parties through the arcana of parliamentary majorities when the threshold for representation is very low. Maybe 8 percent of the populace is what they call Haredi. But, despite differences among them, they are politically disciplined. If there is a bill raising the family allowance for the umpteenth child they will all be for it (as, to be sure, are Arab parties in the Knesset). They will give way on other policy matters like security: Most of them are not hyper-patriotic or even patriotic at all. As can be imagined, there are pretty ugly transactions carried out on the parliamentary floor. If these are not negotiated, a narrow-majority government could easily fall.

The Haredim have a narrow view of their interests as citizens. Their calculus is with God almighty. For many decades, their pious young men did not serve in the military where universal military service, including among secular women, is otherwise the norm. That has now changed somewhat. This change has been accelerated by the less pious cohort of what are called “national religious” youth. But the dividing lines are not immutable, and more-or-less ultra-orthodox men are increasingly allowing themselves to be conscripted. You get the contradiction here: “allowing themselves to be conscripted.” A pious and erudite friend of mine says he rues the day when the first haredi wears a uniform and carries a gun. Well, it’s time to rue.

Not that these Jews have anything against the Palestinians or covet what Palestinians claim as their own. The relevant struggle is between the fervently pious and the great majority of Israeli Jews, not especially for this hilltop in Samaria or this street in the Holy City which may or may not be included in east Jerusalem. It is to keep images of female nudity (or near-nudity) off bus advertisements, to be able to walk in Mea Shearim and other religious neighborhoods without seeing a single woman (she and her already shrouded body being behind barriers), to have traffic diverted on the Sabbath or, in some places, closed down altogether. I am just back from Israel, having flown both ways on El Al, very pleasant and uneventful flights. There were enough ultra-orthodox Jews to notice, at the gate and in the craft itself. Men and women mingled together and jostled each other, even religious men and women whom one could tell apart by their garb. Did some enormous transgression occur?

According to some rabbinic rulings men are not allowed to hear the voices of women in public song. Or women to sing in front of men. Try to enforce that in the army. This is the controversy into which Efraim Halevy inserted himself. He is a citizen, after all.

Readers of The New Republic will know the name Halevy, one of the great truth-tellers and sages of Israel, secular, funny, corrosively intelligent. Look up the articles he has written for us. British-born, immensely knowledgeable about Arab society, wise about the possibilities and limitations of the Israeli polity, for four years he was the head of the Mossad, the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, which tells you less than you already know, and for a similar but later period also the director of Israel’s National Security Council. It is he who was the engineer of the peace between Israel and Jordan, Prime Minister Rabin and King Hussein. A truly weighty man. This story about his attack on religious coercion didn’t make the American press much. In fact, if I am not mistaken, there was no attention at all. The New York Times certainly did not mention it: It was too busy finding fault with whatever. Choose your topic. There’s an article every day. An Israeli settler has cut down an Arab farmer’s olive tree. In context, it’s a terrible thing to do. But it’s not slitting anyone’s throat.

Halevy compared the threat of religious extremism to the Iranian bomb, saying that the latter was a threat that was worldwide and would be addressed, but that the existential matter of how Israel lives needed real attention, attention in Israel and by Israelis. “Israel’s true existential danger comes from within,” he argued. The chairman of the Knesset finance committee wrote the attorney general demanding an investigation of Halevy, accusing him of “incitement.” Many retired generals spoke in support of Halevy, and officers in active service did not hide their simpatico views. You can read about this deep ideological confrontation in the Jerusalem Post, YNet News, Israel Hayom. Nope, as I said, not in the Times.

It is not only the religious right that has been testing its strength. It’s the right itself. They constitute separate cultural strata and vote for different parties. It is true that, in contrast to the orthodox masses who vote as their rabbis say (the Gerer rebbe says “do this,” the Gerer hassid does exactly that: in the last Jerusalem municipal election their rabbi, having quarreled with other rabbis, instructed his acolytes to vote for the secular candidate; he won), the refugees from totalitarianism have argumentative habits. Alas, the immigrants from the ex-Communist Soviet Union and the other “socialist” republics once pasted together in the Warsaw Pact were raised in so authoritarian an environment that their rebellion against dictatorship was also hard-edged, conformist, and, yes, authoritarian. They are not exactly tolerant. Now, it’s true that standards for performance in classical music, dance, and opera have risen enormously since a million Russian Jews (some more Jewish, some less, probably not at all) immigrated to the Jewish state. (This is possibly the first time in history that half-Jews and non-Jews would bribe gentile officials to stamp their documents as “Jewish.”) Their achievements in mathematics, physics, computer science, and bio-tech are simply spectacular, and there are dozens of excellent American universities that would give up their departments if they could exchange them for ones at the Weizmann Institute or Tel Aviv University.

But culture and education is not all this wave of immigrants brought to Israel. Crime is another. Now that the Russian right is represented in the governing coalition it has taken on a series of mischievous initiatives and initiatives worse than mischievous. Still, given that many in their constituency are dubiously Jewish according to the rabbinical authorities (which, believe me, is an ugly, inconsistent, and deeply corrupt cohort), the parliamentary right-wing is actually a pillar of civil liberties when it comes to religious coercion in any sphere of society. Here it has to be said, the qualifications for “being Jewish” for these rabbis are so narrow that probably half of American Jewry would not be Jews at all. My own children would not be considered Jewish.

On other matters, there is an almost fascistic tone to the rhetoric of some on the political right which can stretch from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party to younger members of the governing Likud, the prime minister’s party, and also to some in its Mizrachi base, that is, those who descend from Islamic countries and poorer sectors of the population. They certainly are soft on the thugs of the settler movement who try to intimidate both Palestinian Arabs and Israeli peaceniks. And they are adept at manipulating administrative law through the bureaucracies and the courts to burden Arab life, both in Israel and the territories. There is also a certain militaristic cast to their ways. Moreover, they are sure that, if they don’t win this political battle and that, the apocalypse is just around the corner. This is the ugliest part of Israeli political life. But, then, the left is so weak and the ultra-left even weaker that their prophecy of the apocalypse is limited virtually to the universities: the irony of being a pathetic minority and being able at the same time to impose radical conformity in academe. Kind of like in America.

It is also imperative to grasp that there are actually civil libertarian heroes on the right and specifically in the Likud. They are Benny Begin (the son of the first Likud prime minister, Menahem Begin); Don Meridor (a son of an old Irgun fighter), deputy premier; Reuven Rivlin (the Speaker of the Knesset), a descendant of an old Jewish family in historic Palestine, who is against the two-state solution but a firm supporter of equal rights for Arabs and Jews. They and the cohort around them are Bibi Netanyahu’s margin in the Likud to stand against both the assault on the Supreme Court and the legislative effort in the Knesset to curtail various contributions of foreign governments to Israeli NGOs, mostly pro-Palestinian in expenditures and program.

Let me put both of these issues into a slighter wider context. The Court has been a fierce but prudent enforcer of Arab rights in the context of a conflict society. It is hardly easy work, especially since Israel has not a constitution but a changeable basic law. This means that crucial judicial precedents ended up being the ideas of the previous chief justice, Aharon Barak, who would in America be termed an activist judge. More than that: The choice of Supreme Court justices is not determined by the prime minister (or the president) by nomination but in a convoluted process including sitting justices and designated members of the Israeli bar. I am in favor of my country’s judiciary having the democratic aspect of confirmation. It does, more recently in a foul environment. But Israel’s has none of that. It’s why its Supreme Court is widely disliked. And distrusted. Nonetheless, Bibi has opted for the status quo, notwithstanding that this will constitute a political victory for the left. It is just possible that he favors the present arrangements rather than install a highly partisan process that would advance the right and its views on both Arab rights, in particular, and the rights of the citizenry, in general. It is statesmanship that accounts for his reluctance to court the crowds. I know that Netanyahu is no favorite of the fashionable American left. But he is a favorite of the broad stream in American political opinion. Hence his reception by Congress a few months ago. This was not exactly a triumph for “J Street.”

One of the most pathetic facts about the Israeli left is how dependent it is on foreign cash, much of it from foreign NGOs and from foreign governments. Anti-semitic Norway, as just one instance, puts big bucks into the political and civil dialogue of Israel. Foreign aid of any sort is not a widely discussed matter in any country. So what the Brits appropriate or the Scandinavians or the Belgians or the flatulent “human rights” organizations is not a consequence of any democratic dialogue. It is an imposition of the professionals. The Israeli public doesn’t trust these organizations or the people who run them. And there is no democratic theory that establishes a civil right of foreign bodies secretly to pay for or bolster their own views in a free society where anybody can say or do what he wants. As in Israel where even members of the Knesset are free to commit perfidy and treason, as some Arab members do. Indeed, some 45 years ago, there was a big American scandal when it was revealed by Ramparts magazine (blessedly, no longer with us) that the CIA had committed an abomination in supporting liberal journals and other opinion outlets in Europe, mostly in eastern Europe which, if you recall, was not a free society. How dare they! Well, a similar process is going on in Israel which is a free society. Various proposals were put forward to restrict or restrain this money flow. But Bibi is also against these. And he is against them because he understands that in a tense country it may be better to live with an excess of liberty than an excess of restraint.

Neither of these statesmanlike moves will get Netanyahu credit with the Israel-haters. And, of course, not with the authoritarians in his own party either or Lieberman’s party. In a way, in fact, he stands alone.

There is at least one more obsession of the Israeli right (and of the religious right, as well) which rankles me. It is the case of Jonathan Pollard which has reverberations in the United States. Before spying for Israel, Pollard committed espionage for Australia and Pakistan and had some obscure tie to the People’s Republic of China. For all of this he received remuneration. That is, for all of this including from Israel. He was (and likely still is) a nut-case with fantasies of sainthood and persecution. The campaign for Pollard’s release has intensified around the 25th anniversary of his imprisonment. His partisans have made it into a bipartisan political issue here at home and a “no questions asked” campaign in Israel itself.

Release depends on the president who has enough antipathies to Israel to last two terms. He has accommodated himself to some Middle East realities, i.e., that Palestinian statehood is not where it’s at, and that bashing Israel will get him no place in Egypt, Syria, or even Saudi Arabia. They are their own problems. In fact, he seems to have ceded international diplomacy in the region to France and the European Union—which is almost a non sequitur. Does Europe really exist? He has been pushed by American public opinion into relenting a bit in his hostility to the Jewish state. And American Jews may have relented a bit in their distrust of Obama. But I can imagine that the pressure on him about Pollard drives him up the wall. Finally, he may give in. Why are American Jews so eager to free a spy against the United States? Well, frankly, American Jews don’t give a damn. It’s the Jewish professionals ... and the Israelis. Willy nilly, if he lets Pollard go free, Israel will pay dearly, not just from the president who by now must be disgusted by the passion mobilized for a spy. But by the people of the United States.

I’ve written about the Pollard case before. In fact, just about a year ago, on December 25, 2010, in an item titled, “Mr. President: Do Not Free Jonathan Pollard”:

In the first instance and despite the brazen insinuations of his supporters, Jonathan Pollard is not a Jewish martyr. He is a convicted espionage agent who spied on his country for both Israel and Pakistan (!)—a spy, moreover, who got paid for his work. His professional career, then, reeks of infamy and is suffused with depravity. It is true that Pollard has achieved the status of hero for some in Israel. But you should know exactly who these people are: They are professional victims, mostly brutal themselves, who originate in the ultra-nationalist and religious right. They are insatiable. And they want America to be Israel’s patsy.
They are also not democrats in any sense of the word, and their call for “justice” in this case is probably the only instance in which they have been moved by a sense of mercy for pretty much anyone.
If you release Pollard, you would be encouraging the kind of ideological blackmail that has paralyzed Israeli politics not just in the ongoing diplomatic torpor (in which I believe, as you well know, that it is not Jerusalem at fault) but through the general assault on civil liberties and freedoms that make the Jewish state so distinctive in the Middle East. I know, Mr. President, that you are not responsible for the health of Israel’s democracy. But you will find that bending to this demand for ransom will only encourage the extortionists in Israel to attempt to hijack grand politics in an ever grander manner.
The tacticians on the Israeli far-right argue (dishonestly in my view) that, if you give Pollard to Prime Minister Netanyahu, Bibi will be less constrained and constricted in his diplomacy. Some journalists and commentators have bought this stratagem. (I am surprised to read that also Barney Frank is in this camp.) This is a fundamental and, for some, a deliberate misreading of the dynamics of Israeli statecraft. One hand does not wash the other in Jerusalem, at least not for more than a day or two.
Actually, I was relieved to read that your press counselor had said that Pollard was not on your mind. But, Mr. President, I understand that it might just be easier to let the culprit go. That’s one way to stop the incessant special pleading.
My imagination turns a bit lurid. You release Pollard. He flies to Israel on El Al. He is greeted by thousands and thousands of triumphant hustlers in the streets of Jerusalem. They have pulled one over on you. Over America, too. And over American Jews, especially. They are dancing the hora, of course, ecstatic.
There’s an article in Friday’s Jerusalem Post about a relatively new book, Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by my Harvard colleague Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell. (Putnam is also the author of the highly provocative Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.) Grace has good news in it for the Jews of the United States. They are very much respected by their fellow Americans ... and also much liked. Or, as Putnam told the Post, “the most popular religion in America are Jews.” The author does not believe that this is a fragile standing.
The Post reports:

Putnam offers a piece of anecdotal evidence to illustrate just how positively Jews are allegedly viewed in the U.S. at the moment. According to the processor, people signing up for dating websites who say they are Jewish are more sought after than others.

“If you say you are Jewish, you get more date offers than less,” he said.

I haven’t read the new book. So I don’t know how Israel fits into the equation. My estimate, however, is that Israel’s place in the American mind is quite secure. No, it is not persuaded by the tremblings of some liberal Jewish (and a few non-Jewish) journalists who seem to believe—as perhaps you do, too, Mr. President—that the arc of the future will be drawn in the world of Islam.
So American solidarity with Israel is quite firm. But it is reckless to tempt the goddesses. Pollard is the single repellent figure in this history. It would be a disservice to both Zion and what our forefathers called the “new American Zion” to appear to cleanse this viper. Make no mistake about this: Your clemency for Pollard will be widely seen as a cleansing.

Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.