Israel's Fundamentalist Horizon

If the current demographic trends continue, Israel will have a joint Haredi-settler majority by 2050.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Sometimes the news cycle is so short that you blink and it's gone. If I hadn't glanced at Ynet on Sunday evening, I would have missed it. But I did see the report and assumed that the story would be around at least by the next morning, but I was wrong. There was no sign of it on Monday and for a moment I wondered if it wasn't a dream.

Google confirmed I had not been hallucinating - it had appeared briefly on a handful of websites and been pushed off the agenda. Where was the follow-up? What about the angry condemnations? It had sunk without trace. What am I talking about? You couldn't possibly know if you hadn't checked the headlines exactly at that right moment, so I will have to repeat the entire report.

On Sunday at the Hurva Synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem, an organization called Komemiut held a "day of introspection and prayer" to mark seven years since the dismantling of the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. It was an event of remembrance but with a contemporary tone as those present were determined to prevent another evacuation - this time of the West Bank "outpost" of Migron, built partly on private Palestinian land.

One of the main speakers at the event was Elyakim Levanon, a man who holds the state-funded position of Regional Rabbi of the Samaria Regional Council. "Whoever raises a hand on Migron - his hand will be cut off," said Levanon. "And the prime minister should also know this. There is a law and a judge."

That a public servant can call for the prime minister's violent downfall without causing so much as a stir is chilling. In 17 years since the eve of Yitzhak Rabin's murder we have become inured to such talk, apathetic, until we reached the point that such words by a rabbi who is financed by the tax payer spoken in a synagogue recently renovated at the public's expense are so unsurprising that they warrant no more than a fleeting, almost coincidental headline.

Perhaps the news editors gave a passing thought to the report, whether it was worth following up on, and decided that a far-right rabbi attacking the right-wing prime minister who has done so much to shield that rabbi and his constituency is not news. Maybe there was a short moment of schadenfreude that Netanyahu, who 17 years ago tolerated similar words when they were targeted against his rival, has now had his feeding hand bitten. That grim satisfaction was not a reason for all the self-appointed guardians of Israeli democracy to rise up in defense of the lawfully elected prime minister.

Levanon later clarified his words, saying that he did not mean to call upon anyone to physically harm Benjamin Netanyahu for allowing Migron's removal - he had meant divine retribution. I believe he was not calling for an immediate and violent insurrection. The rest of his Hurva speech proves as much: "Recently two elderly men passed away," he regaled his listeners, "Benzion Netanyahu and Rabbi Elyashiv. One left 1,400 offspring, the second 10. That's the difference between us."

And he had a plan: "We will go forth to conquer the State of Israel. Today in mighty forces we will go to every place. The yeshiva students will go to the army because if they don't there will be no army. Who will go to the army? Those who raise a couple of kids and a dog?"

Levanon was conceding that the government may yet be forced by the Supreme Court to destroy Migron and other outposts, just as the settlements of Gush Katif were swept away, but don't worry, these are only temporary setbacks. It may seem strange on the face of it that he mentioned Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv's Haredi descendants and exhorted yeshiva students to serve in the army in the same breath. But while military service is anathema for any Elyashiv great-grandson, the two strands of Jewish fundamentalism are intertwined.

The dispute over whether or not young men should exchange their Talmud for an M-16 for a couple of years is a bridgeable difference. The rabbis of both camps agree that everything will be solved in a couple of generations, once the secular infertile Israelis who insist on not seeing the light have died out or left the country to be assimilated among the goyim. Not every religious Israeli, not even every Haredi or settler, believes or even desires that one day every Jew in the world will share their beliefs. Many, if not most of them are honest enough to admit, at least to themselves, that Jews were always a mixed bunch of lunatics, heretics and skeptics and should remain that way. But the fundamentalists are in ascendance.

This week, as children returned to school, another public servant, Deputy Education Minister Rabbi Menachem Eliezer Moses, was quoted at a gathering of Haredi school principals saying with satisfaction that this year, for the first time, a majority of children in Israeli kindergartens are either ultra-Orthodox or religious. It was a misleading statistic - Moses was not including Arab children in his calculations and not all the children enrolled in religious kindergartens are actually religious. Many parents place them there for the longer hours or simply because they are closer to their homes and next year they will continue in secular schools. But the Haredi rabbis who privately despise the national-religious for their compromises with modernity are happy to include them in their camp when it pushes secular Israelis into a minority. Today the kindergarten - tomorrow the Knesset.

But despite Malthusian demographic trends indicating a joint Haredi-settler majority in Israel by 2050, both Moses and Levanon are aware how tenuous their advantage could be. None of the current trends are inexorable. As the Haredi community grows, the hold of its ancient leaders over a generation who have grown up in the 21st Century is rapidly eroding and the trickle of defections will increase to a torrent. The growing number of West Bank settlers is also misleading. Three-quarters live in comfortable suburbs by the Green Line, easily absorbed into the sovereign Israeli state as part of a two-state solution which a clear majority of Israelis still support.

The fundamentalists see their majority beckoning on the horizon if only they can hold on for another 20 years, perpetuating the settlement program and shutting off their young from outside influences. It is impossible to foresee whether they will prevail, but we are giving them a much better chance of success by not listening to what they say.

Members of the settler hilltop youth rebuild a structure demolished earlier by Israeli troops in the West Bank outpost of Maoz Esther, near Ramallah. May 2009Credit: AP/Sebastian Scheiner



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