With a Beard and a Shtreimel, Santorum Would Be Perfect for an Israeli ultra-Orthodox Party

The battle over contraception and other 'culture wars' now raging in American presidential politics can make an Israeli feel right at home.

“Hadarat nashim”, the exclusion of women, is the catchphrase that encompasses all of the recent manifestations in Israel of the attempts to distance females from sitting at the front of the bus, singing in military ceremonies, publicly accepting prizes, appearing on public billboards and what not. It’s what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was talking about a few months ago when she reportedly told the Saban Forum in Washington that such things remind her of Iran.

Last week, in yet another sign of the close affinity of Republicans with Israel, “hadarat nashim” crossed the Atlantic and reached the U.S. Congress.


Representative Darrel Issa summoned an all-male panel – including an Orthodox rabbi of impeccable pedigree, Yeshiva University’s Meir Soloveichik - to testify before his House Oversight Committee on the Catholic confrontation with the Administration over financing contraception for employees.

Issa refused to allow third year Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke to testify before his committee, thus providing Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman with a perfect comeback line to Clinton, who had cited Rosa Parks, the famous African-American civil rights hero, in her critical remarks about Israel in November. “At least in the Knesset, we allow women to testify,” Lieberman might say.

Though there is clearly “a difference of sky and earth”, as the Hebrew saying goes, between the U.S. and Israel, America’s so-called “culture wars”, such as those that have erupted in presidential politics in recent weeks, can sometimes make an Israeli feel right at home. The Republican battle cry that the Obama Administration is waging a “war on religion”, for example, is standard operating procedure for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox political parties. Hardly a day goes by without an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, leader or pundit circling the wagons and drumming up support by claiming that one secular politician or another – especially if his last name is Lapid - is waging a “war on Judaism” or “war on the haredim”. And in recent days, if you close your eyes, listen to his words and conjure him with a beard and a traditional Orthodox shtreimel (fur hat) on his head, one might easily cast Republican frontrunner Rich Santorum as a leader of an Israeli ultra-Orthodox party rather than the devout Catholic that he is.

Santorum’s views on contraception (wrong), abortion (never), gay marriage (no different than polygamy), homosexual relations (akin to bestiality, and traditionally punishable by death, according to the Book of Leviticus) are not much different, and, in some cases, perhaps slightly more rigid, than most Haredi politicians in Israel. Santorum’s opposition to Federal and State intervention in school education is already being immaculately implemented in Israel’s so-called “Independent” school system, in which religious studies are predominant and very little “secular” studies – such as math or the sciences – are allowed to get in the way. Santorum’s skepticism about evolution, which he tried to translate into law in 2001 when he was the Senator from Pennsylvania, would be par for the course in ultra-Orthodox circles, where one wouldn’t dare to mention the name Darwin, even in dreams.

On the other hand, and contrary to some of his Republican rivals who champion “states’ rights”, Santorum sees nothing wrong with federal legislation of “family values”, just as Israel’s religious parties have relied on Knesset laws to regulate issues ranging from marriage and divorce through working on the Sabbath all the way to pig farming. And Santorum’s reference to Obama’s “phony theology” is par for the course for haredi politicians who routinely describe Zionism as a “phony religion”.

Of course, the critical difference between Israel and America is their drastically different political systems. American presidential candidates, if they are to win elections, have to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters, including moderate and mostly secular independents, which means that extreme conservatives such as Barry Goldwater or fanatic liberals such as George McGovern generally lose elections badly. For the same reason, many Republicans are increasingly worried that Santorum might also be too radical to beat Obama in the November elections, (although his increasingly controversial statements in recent days suggest that he’s doing whatever he can to make sure that he doesn’t get the nomination).

In Israel’s proportional system, however, ultra-Orthodox parties don’t need to pander to the general public or to bother with formulating policy on such irksome issues as the economy or national security: they can afford to think only of their own narrow constituency and its parochial interests. Given that the two main political blocs, left and right, are always short of an absolute majority, perennially at loggerheads over the “cardinal” issue of peace and territories and wouldn’t trust each other if their lives depended on it, they have no choice but to rely on the religious parties to be their coalition partners. Secure in the knowledge that they will always hold the balance of power and be the kingmakers, the religious parties allow their secular colleagues to get on with their business of pretending to make peace or trying to annex the territories, whichever the case maybe, and all they ask for in return is influence, religious laws, autonomy, and enormous amounts of cash that will guarantee their predominance in a few short decades.

What saves America from this imposition of religious edicts in the public sphere is its two-party, winner take all political system. Imagine, though, that America also had a proportional system, with a staunchly social-democratic and dovish Democratic Party on the left and a fanatically free market and hawkish Republican Party on the right, both waging a never-ending political world war on the economy and America’s place in the world. Now imagine that between these two poles there is a third party, a single-issue party, made up of Catholic fundamentalists and Protestant Evangelicals and perhaps even a rabbi or two thrown in for good measure, whose main raison d’etre was to eradicate godlessness and instill religiosity in American life.

Of course, the natural alliance of this third party would be with the Republicans, but if the Democrats got more votes, there is no doubt that the two sides would be able to reach an accommodation, with the Democrats being allowed to pursue their policies in exchange for far reaching concessions on abortions, say, or contraception, or religious education. If this doesn’t sound plausible to you, it's because you haven’t been exposed enough to the absolute cynicism of proportional coalition politics, which can make for the strangest of bedfellows (though not of the type that Santorum finds so offensive).

In any case, even in the current setup, if I were a Republican religious conservative, especially the “Jesus candidate” that Santorum has described, I would urgently dispatch an emissary or two to the courts of some of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox rabbis and to the backrooms of their political representatives. If one is going to do battle in the confrontation between church and state - or synagogue and state in this case - one might as well learn from the pros who have been winning at this game for many, many years.

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