Opinion

What Reza Aslan’s 'Believer' Gets Wrong About Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews

Reza Aslan thinks Haredim are as exotic as cannibals, and that's only the start

A man without pants rides the Jerusalem light rail as part of the "No Pants Subway Ride," January 15, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

At the end of the latest episode of Reza Aslan’s CNN show “Believer,” which examined the rise of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, I immediately had to flip the channel to see if "Seinfeld" wasn’t airing new episodes. I had to check the Billboard Hot 100 to see that Britney Spears’ “...Baby One More Time” wasn’t #1. Finally, I entered whitehouse.gov to check that the president of the United States wasn’t Bill Clinton.

In short, I had to make sure that it wasn’t 1998 again. Because Aslan’s exploration of Israel’s Haredi population was so unbelievably retrograde, so inconceivably behind the curve, that the only way to explain it was that we, the viewers, had traveled back in time — or at least, Aslan did.

In “Believer,” a show that CNN describes as a “spiritual adventure series,” Aslan tries to apply the same trick that Anthony Bourdain utilizes so effectively in “Parts Unknown” — namely, exploring unusual cultures through encounters with unusual cuisine — to religion. For this purpose, he visits human-flesh-eating sects, doomsday cults and practitioners of Haitian Vodou, among others.

Why Aslan sees ultra-Orthodox Jews as being as exotic as cannibals and doomsday cultists is anyone’s guess, seeing as unlike the latter, he can find plenty of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. As it turns out, though, religion is a bit more complex than food, and can’t be analyzed like exotic cuisine made of unconventional ingredients. It has to be treated gently, with an eye for nuance, and with a willingness to sacrifice sensationalist soundbites for the sake of depth. “Believer” does not ascribe to any of that.

At this point, I will not be the first to call Aslan’s show superficial and sensationalist. A number of critics, like Elias Muhanna in the New Yorker, have already commented on the show’s lack of substance and penchant for sensationalism. Its episode on Israel’s ultra-Orthodox was a case in point.

Aslan’s errors and omissions are too many to list here in full, but let’s start with a few basic ones:

First, not all Haredim are the same. Throughout the episode, the ultra-Orthodox are treated as a singular, unified group. This characterization ignores the fact that under the umbrella of “Haredim” there are numerous groups and strands, all with their own unique characteristics and customs, all with their own complicated relationships with the State of Israel and the modern world.

To simply portray all these groups as “anti-modern,” as Aslan’s show does, is beyond superficial. Ultra-Orthodox Jews may have extreme views regarding some facets of modern life, but they are not Amish.

Second, Aslan completely misses, or omits deliberately, the broader political context. While Aslan presents his show as an in-depth exploration of societal and cultural tensions, his investigations never venture beyond the most superficial truisms (Haredi people don’t serve in the army, women are not treated as equals). The abject conditions in which many Haredim find themselves have as much to do with the intricacies of Israel’s deeply sectarian politics and the complex leadership structure within Israel’s Haredi population as their religious devotion, but Aslan prefers to gloss over all that to present a simple story about religious extremism gone haywire.

Which brings me to the biggest error Aslan makes: the silly binary narrative with which he frames the entire episode.

The narrative, as laid out by Aslan during the show and in a piece he published on CNN under the headline “Why I worry about Israel’s future,” is simple: A group of religious zealots called Haredim want to do away with Israel’s “modern, secular democracy” and instill religious law, in the same way that Islamic fanatics turned Iran into a theocracy in 1979. There is a “secular majority” in Israel, he says, whose will is threatened by a small sect of religious zealots: Haredim.

It all sounds very scary, and if you’ve spoken to any secular people in Israel in the past two decades, you’ve likely heard some version of this. Aslan may be shocked to find echoes of the Iran he grew up in within present-day Israel, but comparisons to Iran have been de rigueur among Israeli fear-mongers for over 20 years. In 1998, as anti-Haredi sentiments peaked following the rise of the Shas party, Israeli singer Aviv Geffen even sang in protest: “Good morning, Iran!”

The problem is, the overwhelming “secular majority” of which Aslan speaks doesn't exist in Israel. According to a survey released by the Pew Research Center last year, only 49 percent of Jews in Israel define themselves as secular. Nine percent of Jews define themselves as Haredim, 13% define themselves as religious and 29% define themselves as “traditional,” somewhere in the middle between religious and secular.

But even the secular people in Israel are not secular in the same way that French people who identify as secular are secular. As Aslan himself notes when he visits a Friday night dinner of a staunchly secular Israeli family, even the most ardent secular people in Israel observe some religious traditions, their identities deeply rooted in ethnic and religious background.

One suspects that in order to simplify his narrative, Aslan also omits the rapid developments in Haredi society in recent years. He doesn’t account for the record numbers of Haredim who join the army, or the growing internet use among the ultra-Orthodox. A new generation of young Haredim, sick of the old way of doing things, have given birth to a new, more assimilated type of Haredi in recent years, which Haaretz’s Nati Tucker has written quite a bit about. It’s not a linear progression, and the old isolationism is still very much alive, but these are important developments that complicate Aslan’s simplistic narrative of religious fanaticism taking over a-la Iran.

Reza Aslan, February 24, 2017.
Willy Sanjuan/AP

It is true, Israeli society has undergone vast changes in recent years. Extremism, both religious and nationalistic, is on the rise. So is messianism. A long series of proposed legislations have attempted to diminish Israel’s self-definition as a democratic state, in favor of making it a much more Jewish one. Some of those proposals have to do with increased enforcement of Sabbath-observance laws (particularly in Tel Aviv, where they are not enforced). Most, however, have to do with further marginalization of non-Jewish minority groups.

What Aslan gets so wrong is that none of this really has much to with Haredim. The 2014 effort to close Tel Aviv’s supermarkets on the Sabbath came from the “secular” then-interior minister Gideon Saar. Most of the other proposals that seek to limit civil liberties on religious grounds came from either “secular” or religious-Zionist members of Knesset.

And here is where Aslan really missed the bigger picture: despite the inevitable frictions that accompany the growth of its population, it’s not the religious fanaticism of the Haredim that is threatening Israel’s democracy (or what remains of it). The real threat is the religious-induced nationalism that has taken hold of large swaths of Israel’s population, secular, religious, and Haredi alike.

But all this would make for a far less compelling and much more challenging hour of television.