Opinion

Battling to Control the Shtetl

The crude, ugly political battle over Netanyahu's right to speak at Israel's 70th Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony begs the question: is it worth scraping away the little glue that still binds us together?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev present the logo chosen for Israel's 70th anniversary celebrations in Jerusalem
\ POOL/ REUTERS

I probably shouldn’t care about the crude, ugly political battle going on these days between Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, the latter demanding to change the rules and allow the prime minister to speak at the 70th Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony. What does the Haredi community have to do with the ceremony symbolizing Israel’s statehood and the fulfillment of the Zionist dream?

To be honest, I feel a pang in my heart, and mostly shame. A Haredi person does not have many opportunities to identify, to a whatever extent, with Israeli symbols. We don’t have to be taught how to celebrate the traditional Jewish holidays, but it is always interesting and moving to try to experience – even if a bit from the “outside” – the commemoration of the “Israeli holidays.” To feel a bit of the sadness on Memorial Day and the joy and festivities on Independence Day.

In recent years, in light of the process of Israelization that the ultra-Orthodox community is undergoing, which includes integration into the workforce, growth in the numbers enlisting in the army, study for academic degrees and more – many Haredim want to mark these days of mourning and happiness, and they choose to do so in their own way, with a combination of Judaism and Israelism.

From year to year, growing numbers of men wearing kippas and women wearing head coverings come to join with the memory of the fallen at the ceremony for Memorial Day, which is held every year on Mount Independence alongside the memorial monument to the fallen in Bnei Brak (yes, there is such a place). They learn chapters of the Mishna and say Kaddish, but they also stand at attention for the siren and sing Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikva.” Haredim who work hard to make a living take advantage of the vacation of Independence Day to participate in Torah classes, but at the same time they go out with their families for a barbeque in one of the parks or watch the Air Force flyover along Israel’s shores.

Now all that could very well be spoiled, which would be a pity.

As someone numbered among the minority in Israeli society, I appreciate Regev’s efforts to take care of the “second Israel,” and give expression to the wide range of voices in Israeli culture. Regev wants to make room in Israeli culture for Haredim, Arabs and residents of the periphery too, not just for the “State of Tel Aviv.” For this she deserves praise.

But precisely in light of that, it seems that in the current dispute, Regev is acting in a completely mistaken manner. Instead of allowing the people of Israel – with all their tribes, ethnic groups and communities – to set aside its disagreements for a moment; instead of enabling identification with the positive spirit of the people while standing in pride for all that has been built and created here, Regev has chosen to sharpen the sense that everything is personal and political and overflowing with self-interest and intrigue.

The dispute between Regev and Edelstein reminds me of the power struggles in the Jewish shtetls in Eastern Europe between the gaba’im who ran the synagogues and the communal leaders. A place very far away from Israeli independence. To a certain extent I have lost the taste and desire to watch, and maybe even to be moved by the coming torch-lighting ceremony.

With her own hands, Regev has damaged Israeli statehood, herself and the prime minister. Is it worth destroying everything for one speech? To prove that she is the one who decides the rules of the ceremony, is it worth scraping away the little glue that still binds us?

In his speech, the Knesset speaker is supposed to represent not just the ruling party but all of Israeli society: Religious and secular, Russians and Mizrahim, Arabs and Jews. Maybe Regev mistakenly thinks the bickering, political rivalry and useless shouting are what symbolizes the 70 years of Israel more than anything else.