Liberalism Has the Right to Defend Itself

Many liberals confuse their tolerance of other belief systems with the mistaken idea that liberalism cannot and must not defend itself, its values and its lifestyle.

Imagine seeing the following story in the news: "A Haredi neighborhood has been flooded by requests from secular Jews to rent and buy apartments. They have opened bars in the neighborhood as well as an Agudat Hillel office, which offers assistance and advice to Haredi youths who want to become secular. The Haredim have started to counterattack; they have launched a Web site encouraging Haredim not to rent apartments to seculars, and are warning that the neighborhood's religious value and way of life is in danger."

I wonder whether Gideon Levy would feel strongly about this. If anything, he would probably note with satisfaction that Haredim have resorted to modern technological means in order to defend their neighborhood. He might even write about the insensitivity of secular Jews who don't understand the need of Haredim to live in their own way.

The story in Ramat Aviv happens to be the other way around: Secular Jews are organizing to defend their lifestyle against a Haredi influx. So why has Levy concluded that this is anti-Semitic? He claims it's trendy for leftists to hate the Haredim - a generalization I don't accept. Neither I nor many of my acquaintances in the neighborhood dislike Haredim.

If I thought that an influx of Haredim to Ramat Aviv would maintain the modus vivendi of peaceful coexistence (despite the stereotype that there are many religious inhabitants here), I wouldn't worry about it at all. I like mixed neighborhoods, provided they are based on a shared value of respecting each other's lifestyle and non-interference.

Levy claims we are talking about a limited phenomenon and wonders why anybody should be worried about a growing Haredi presence. The answer is very simple: from Safed to Beit Shemesh, from Ramot Eshkol in Jerusalem to Arad, the story has repeated itself: Haredim begin by renting or buying apartments, and once they reach a critical mass, they make life for the remaining secular Jews impossible through pressure, harassment and even threats.

This is not a paranoid leftist nightmare, but a matter of historical fact. So is the Haredi belief that, in the long run, they will take over the country. Meir Porush lost the mayoral elections in Jerusalem because, thinking that only his co-workers were listening, he said in Yiddish that with God's help in another 10 or 15 years, there will not be a single secular mayor in Israel except in some God-forsaken village.

This didn't surprise me: In conversations with Haredim, many of them they tell me with a friendly smile that they know they will take over the country at some point. There are exceptions; I know quite a few Haredim who truly believe in cultural pluralism. Unfortunately they are afraid to speak their minds openly, and thus remain unheard in Israel's public discourse. I wonder what led Gideon Levy, with whom I mostly agree on political matters, to misread the situation so badly. My hunch is that he has fallen prey to confusion prevalent among liberals: That the core value of liberalism is the individual, which is antithetical to forcing beliefs or a lifestyle on others - whether by the state or by a religion. As a result, liberals tolerate other belief systems even if they disagree with them.

Many liberals confuse this with the mistaken idea that liberalism cannot and must not defend itself, its values and its lifestyle. The result is that liberals often try to appease those who attack it rather than exercising self defense. The ideology of political correctness that says liberals must respect other groups' feelings, but that other groups can attack and vilify liberalism, is extreme.

Why on earth should liberals be the only group not entitled to defend its lifestyle? Why should it be acceptable that Haredim call us Nazis for wanting the right to cremation instead of religious burials, and for religious nationalists to call us empty hedonists for not accepting their dreams of a bellicose Israel guided by a mythical past?

None of this is about disliking Haredim, and it is even less about anti-Semitism. We can enjoy each other's presence, we can have heated but friendly discussions about values, beliefs and the role of religion in the State of Israel. But this does not mean that liberals should accept more infringement on our lifestyle than the Haredim do. The opposite: We should learn from them that in Israel you need to defend your values and lifestyle very actively if you want to survive.

Prof. Carlo Strenger, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, teaches at the Psychology Department at Tel Aviv University and is a member of the Permanent Monitoring Panel on Terrorism of the World Federation of Scientists.