Israel's Orthodox Parties Are Corrupting Judaism and Corroding Democracy

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Eli Yishai carried on the shoulders of his supporters in Tel Aviv, after launching his new party 'Ha'am Itanu.' January 7, 2015. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Being a believer is mightily irritating in the lead-up to the March 17 general elections, for the ideological-social expressions of Orthodoxy are, politely said, seriously challenged by the prerequisite of participation in (post)modern, national political life: democracy.

Yes, we all vote, and ultra-Orthodox Jews allow, and even compel, women to participate – even though they all agree that it is really wrong halakhically (according to Jewish law). To Haredim, women’s suffrage is a permanent “emergency measure” ensuring Orthodox power. But as halakhic authorities point out, it doesn’t actually matter whether women abide by what men tell them to do; men themselves only do what they are told to by party machers who read the often mysterious signs of the great leaders (gedolim), obviating the need for primaries. Even the master of Shas, Rabbi Ovadyah Yosef’s daughter Adina Bar Shalom, winner of the Israel Prize, was forbidden to run for the Knesset. She, caving under pressure, was allowed to form a women’s consulting council – a kind of ladies’ auxiliary. What for? To listen to men’s speeches? To bake cookies?

The democratic values of lucidity and transparency are also shunned as ultra-Orthodox Judaism speaks only to itself in a language that only it understands. Core democratic values of sharing the burden and not being dependent upon society are dismissed. And I interrupt this lament to remind us that these democratic values are also core Jewish values. Since when was voluntary poverty – and its attendant evils of malnourishment, ignorance, and familial stress – a Jewish value? When was there ever a Jewish society that could not produce its own medical doctors – and I’m not talking soothsayers or amulet peddlers? Almost on every level, ultra-Orthodox Judaism says "no" to Israeli democracy. In crises like the recent war with Gaza, they can’t be counted on to do anything of substance – except to stop vituperative protests and to say some psalms. We can pray for more Haredi startups, but they have trained generations to be materially useless and spiritually obscurantist. Tzedaka – the mitzvah to give, not take – has become their “democratic” entitlement program.

In comparison to Haredim, our national-religious parties seem positively democratic. They hold primaries, women vote and can become, if not leaders, then at least MKs, and can compete in demagogic – excuse me – nationalistic speechifying. But a dangerous element within this Jewish-democratic system is that of isolation. Increasingly, leadership among the national-religious parties comes from small villages and city enclaves that somehow, by law, covenant or lack of welcome, are only populated by people like me – knitted kippa-wearing Sabbath observers. Car horns are not heard on Shabbat in the national-religious neighborhoods, but neither are voices of those whose opinions differ to their nationalist tune. A child can go to separate schools, join Bnei Akiva; enter a Hesder yeshiva program, which allows religious soldiers to combine military service with Torah study; or midrasha, a Torah study program for women; serve in a separate military or national service regiment; marry one of the chevre (one's gang of friends) as they attend a separate university; and then move out to the religious-only settlement.

This is considered success, and I dance happily at the weddings of these young couples. They serve and they work, but they retreat to themselves. Isolation becomes the governing mindset. Then all sense of other understandings of reality becomes literally nonsense. In a recent edition of the weekly Makor Rishon, Rabbi Chayim Navon offers a chilling “a quick guide to Israeli journalists” in which he satirizes price tag-like harassment against Palestinians as media libel.

Isolation means that there is no philosophic and halakhic (Jewish legal) discourse regarding the Israeli-Arab minority or Palestinians. In prestigious religious journals such as Techumin or Torah She'be'al Peh one will find discussion on every issue from the latest surgical device to the blessing over papaya. Everything except the situation of the Arab minority who, if mentioned, are as cooks of kosher food, Sabbath workers, enemy soldiers, terrorists or allusions to Amalek. No discussion about our responsibility for their welfare, integration into society, and certainly not to what we can learn from them. They are, at best, off the radar.

The glee felt by the religious parties that, given the new election threshold law, designed such that, if the Arabs don’t get their act together, they might not be in the Knesset at all, is hardly in the democratic spirit. Together with the so-called Jewish nation-state bill and cutting off the Palestinians’ tax money in retaliation to their attempt to join the International Criminal Court, will translate into a demand for Arab subservience. All that will be hard, with any pilpul (casuistry), to explain not only to Europe, the United States and world Jewry, but to ourselves, as being both Jewish and democratic. The religious parties’ goal of having one state with Palestinians as quasi-citizens or as conditional residents will inevitably and tragically be understood in light of the black revolutionary Frantz Fanon: “The colonist only ends his work of breaking in the native when the latter admits loud and clear the supremacy of the white man’s values.”

My fellow believers are fairly optimistic, even cheerful, before this election. They will vote for a democracy with lessened democratic values. The Haredim will vote for more benefits and less responsibility; the national religious will vote for more responsibility and less benefit to the other. This coalition of diminished democracy will also mean a corroded and corrupted Judaism.

Rabbi Landes is Director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches the Senior Kollel Talmud class and Theology. His views are his own.

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