The Hour of the Zealots

Last Saturday night, United Torah Judaism's campaign headquarters in Jerusalem was torched and a swastika was spray-painted near the synagogue of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, the leader of the Lithuanian Haredi community.

Last Saturday night, United Torah Judaism's campaign headquarters in Jerusalem was torched and a swastika was spray-painted near the synagogue of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, the leader of the Lithuanian Haredi community. UTJ campaigners say they know who was behind the vandalism, but decline to give names to the police. It is clear to them that the vandals were from the Haredi community.

There's nothing new about internecine Haredi violence. Gerrer hassids beat up Menachem Porush, shattering his spectacles, modesty patrols have beaten up women who dared to leave husbands, and there are plenty more examples. A swastika goes beyond the bounds, especially since this comes from new zealous districts, and is not supposedly for the sake of God.

Baruch Marzel's popularity and the popularity among Haredis of the blatantly racist, nationalist platform of Herut, worries most of the Haredi leadership.

The Council of Torah Sages convened last week specifically to call on their public not to vote for parties that include Sabbath desecrators. The rabbis wanted to emphasize their prohibition on voting for those who rely on their "power and the might of [their] hand. This was a reference to Marzel, but for some reason, the rabbis were afraid of their own shadow and erased the line.

In the not too distant past, the biblical warning against claming "my power and the might of mine hand" was a Haredi euphemism for their struggle against Zionism. Nowadays, sane Zionism, the heir to the founders of the state, has been shoved into a corner and tagged under the general insult of "leftists." A small group of Lithuanians, Belzers, the Eda Haredit and some others whose moderate political views are guided by a tradition of "not climbing the walls," are lax in the face of extremist nationalist trends that threaten to sweep young Haredis to its bosom.

Secular people aren't even aware of the storm and are sure it has nothing to do with them - it's an internal Haredi affair. But it does touch on Israeli society as a whole, and it touches it deeply. Once more the Haredi community is going through dramatic change and if it is noticed at all it is being read incorrectly.

Seen through the eyes of supposedly scholarly commentators and reports on TV and in the press, the change is presented as follows. The Haredis, who until now have been closed up in their self-imposed ghettoes, are coming out and getting more involved in secular society than ever. Their women are going to college, their children are using computers, and many are learning advanced technical subjects.

Therefore, say the wishful-thinking commentators, Haredi society is changing without even feeling it and soon, within generation or two, they will be like just like the seculars - with fewer children and less attached to old and outmoded customs. In short, progress will win in the end. On the other side of that erroneous coin, people look at the various charities - Yad Sarah, Ezer Mizion, even Zaka, the nearly military operation of "chief of operations" Yehuda Meshi Zaghav. The seculars who meet them are (justifiably) charmed by their high level of professionalism, their aesthetic, and the efficiency that characterizes their activities - and above all, by the rare humanism of their efforts. The Haredis, say these seculars, aren't what we thought - they are much more involved; there's a new Haredi.

It's not true. Using technology and modern communications to disseminate religion is a sophisticated feature of all fundamentalist believers across the world (by Christians in America and Muslims in Europe, for example). The Haredis may be more integrated, but only where the welfare state has collapsed - in care for the handicapped, the elderly, the mentally ill, the hungry, the victims of terror. That's the social side of the coin.

The political nationalist side emerged from the tradition of Gush Emunim, which turned Zionism from the its legitimate ambition of self-determination and sovereignty into a brutal occupation, and imbued the Torah with the evil spirit of a messianic narcotic. That's the spirit sweeping through the Haredi community as it longs for a new leadership and longs to be freed from difficult, gray, day to day lives.

The charity that has replaced the welfare state has a clearly missionary agenda that is determined to change the identity of Israel - and nationalism fits it like a glove. The left, which is supposed to offer a social, economic and ideological agenda, is collapsing. The tired Labor election campaign even managed to blur what Meretz achieved in the social sphere by much hard work.

In the huge vacuum that was left behind, Shinui is selling the illusion that it is possible to build a separation fence between the secular and Haredi society. If the current economic policies continue, the Haredis will gather strength in the first round. In the second round, that strength will backfire on everyone, including the Haredis.

In their worst nightmares, Torah sages down the ages never imagined that the modern state would be crushed under a religious boot - certainly not under a religious nationalist one.