David Landau Celebrates Judaism, and Worries

Bibi has hijacked the Haredim, the former Haaretz editor-in-chief wrote recently in a special report in The Economist on Judaism and the Jews. The peaceniks need to woo them back, he says in this interview. And if Bibi's right about anything, it's the Iranian nukes.

It might not seem like a natural subject for The Economist, but earlier this month, the British news weekly - renowned for its coverage of global affairs and business - published a 10,000-word special insert on the state of the Jewish religion and its followers.

The 12-page supplement titled "Judaism and the Jews: Alive and Well," which sparked lively discussion in the Jewish world and beyond, was the brainchild of David Landau, The Economist's long-time correspondent in Jerusalem. He'd been nurturing the idea for years, Landau says, but it wasn't an easy sell mainly because he was initially determined to sidestep the rather delicate issue of Israel -- "the elephant in the middle of the room," as he puts it.

His bosses in London eventually persuaded Landau that any discussion of the plight of the Jews could not avoid the plight of the Jewish state.

"They were absolutely right," he says. "It would have been completely bizarre and not at all journalistic to pretend to write about Jews and Judaism without acknowledging that the very center of Jewish life and thought today is Israel."

Landau, former editor-in-chief of Haaretz, was initially concerned readers might interpret the initiative as his coming to terms with a post-Israel world, a world in which the Jewish people survive and flourish without the need for a state, he says.

"One of the things that worried me throughout the long period when this project was gestating is that I would be accused of contemplating, in a sort of sub-textual way, Judaism post-Israel," he recounts. "Is this piece saying that Judaism is alive and well regardless of whether Israel is capable of sustaining itself as a Zionist Jewish sovereign state? Is that why I'm writing about Judaism in The Economist?"

During the four months he spent working on the supplement, Landau traveled around the United States and Europe and interviewed dozens of better-known and lesser-known Jews. The end product, in his view and as its title suggests, is a "celebration of the Jewish religion, its resilience, its ability to reinvent itself and its ability to surprise its detractors and doomsayers."

An overriding theme of the report is that the Haredim are now a force to be reckoned with in the Jewish world (the cover of the supplement features a photo of a Haredi man strolling on the beach with three small children), and if Israel is to survive as a sovereign Jewish state, it is incumbent on those in the peace camp to change their attitudes and reach out to these ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Haredim and secular: More in common than they think

The secular left in Israel and the Haredim, observes Landau -- he himself an unusual breed in that he moves easily in both worlds -- have more in common than they think.

"Secular Zionists treat their heritage of Judaism in a non-fundamentalist way," says Landau. "You study the Bible and read the stories and try to adapt it to your modern perspective. In a funny sort of way, the Haredim do the same. When they read the story of Joshua, they don't apply it immediately to themselves and grab the nearest Uzi and start shooting. With them, there isn't this crude concretization, which is the religion of the settlers. If Joshua did it, we've got to do it. The Arabs are Amalek, and they've got to be extirpated. That, to my mind, is the true fundamentalism and the true danger to the survival of this country. But the Haredim are not part of that."

So he can't understand why smart people, like Aaron David Miller -- the former U.S. State Department adviser and Middle East peace negotiator -- just don't get it. Landau whips out his smartphone to pull up a New York Times op-ed piece by Miller published on the day of our interview that made him absolutely livid, mainly because of the following sentence about Israel: "The country's demographics look bad -- too many ultra-Orthodox Jews, Palestinians and Israeli Arabs -- and not enough secular Jews."

Know-it-all elitism

"I'm sitting here and thinking to myself, 'Could a non-Jewish person have written that?'" asks Landau. "Would Aaron David Miller have written in The New York Times that the demographics in Turkey look bad -- too many veiled women and not enough secular Turks?' Could he get away with writing that? I feel like saying to him, 'Tell me, have you bothered checking the demographics of the Jewish community of Cleveland, Ohio, where you come from? Today, 49 percent of the Jewish children in New York are Haredi, so Aaron David Miller has to look in his own backyard before he makes this sort of statement. This is the kind of know-it-all elitism that has been so characteristic of the Diaspora Jewish leadership and the Israeli elite for so long. It's pathetic, and if in this Economist piece, I've succeeded in making six people of consequence rethink Jewish demographics, then the whole thing was worth it."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ability to blur the distinctions between Haredim and Orthodox Zionists, maintains Landau, has contributed enormously to his political success. "The fact that it's been so easy for Bibi to lump together all the Haredi parties with the settlers and make them the bulwark of his coalition -- it's remarkable when you think about it. Has anyone thought about the fact that there are really no Haredim in the West Bank? That in 2005 the Haredim joined Sharon's government with the full knowledge that this would enable him to move ahead with the disengagement from Gaza? Why hasn't that left an impact on people?"

Landau, an observant British-born Jew who wears a black kippa, describes himself as a "non-religious Zionist, a pure Herzlian secular Zionist." Very soon after the 1967 war, when he was still a newcomer to Israel, he says, he understood that the initial euphoria that swept through the country was misplaced.

Not only doesn't he see any connection between religious adherence and Zionism: "I vehemently deny any religious significance to this enterprise called the State of Israel. I honestly believe that the Biblical prophecies contemplated something much more perfect than the Tel Aviv bus station, and I think the investiture of religion into this enterprise is its undoing."

But if Israel, like other European nation-states, is going to have a state religion, then in Landau's view, that religion has to be Jewish orthodoxy.

"The reason for that is that the roots -- the political, cultural and demographic roots -- of Israel are in places where Judaism was not heavily infiltrated, if you like, by the non-Orthodox denominations," he says. "American Jews don't understand this, and they want to change the balance here by means that are not one-man, one-vote. That makes for a permanent undertone of crisis in the Israeli-Diaspora relationship."

He is particularly enraged by the recent success of the Conservative and Reform movements in striking down a bill that would have eased the conversion process for 300,000 Russian immigrants living in Israel but in exchange would have give the chief rabbinate authority over conversions.

"Israel, with all its screwed up politics and religion, brought these Russians here and is trying to help convert them, and the American Jewish non-Orthodox organizations have put a spoke in that wheel. Our prime minister, in his kowtowing cowardice toward American Jewish money, went along with them, and it's a great bloody shame," he expostulates.

Netanyahu does deserve credit, maintains Landau, for strengthening ties between Israel and the Diaspora more than any of his predecessors, but on the downside he did so on his own terms: he managed to rally world Jewry behind his own policies on the settlements. "That's devastating because he's put them behind a policy that dooms us," Landau says.

In a departure from the rather optimistic tone of the Economist report, Landau says he fears "the march of folly of Jewish history" continues today. "If our leadership is so short-sighted as to lead us into a situation where we lose our sovereign state because it no longer rests on a Democratic majority of Jews, then we'll have done it to ourselves, just like we did it in the past. That's not to mitigate the murderous responsibility of our persecutors, but even before Christianity, we didn't do too well running our sovereign state."

His detractors on the right may be reassured to know there is one issue on which Landau firmly backs Netanyahu. "I've always been behind him on Iran," he says. "Always, always, always, because I feel exactly the way he does about the lessons of the Holocaust. I'm totally against using any sort of Holocaust reference for anything other than the Holocaust, but a nuclear bomb is a Holocaust, and I think he and Barak read our history right in that context. But I think to myself, 'For Christ's sake, if he's reading it right in that context, how come he's not reading it right in the context of the threat to our Jewish Democratic state, which is just as palpable in my eyes?"