Shelly and the ultra-Orthodox

"One day historians will research a fascinating phenomenon: How the State of Israel, which began as a safe haven for survivors of anti-Semitism and genocide, spawned a new anti-Semitism unhindered. The victims of this anti-Semitism are ultra-Orthodox Jews; the perpetrators: secular Jews."

Until last week, practically no one would have guessed the author of the above text. Today, it is much easier. They were written by Knesset hopeful Shelly Yachimovich. She published the article two years ago, when the possibility of Amir Peretz becoming head of the Labor Party seemed even more improbable than Yachimovich's becoming a politician.

The essay, titled "The New Anti-Semites," originally appeared in satirical Internet magazine Eppes ("something" in Yiddish), the precursor of the Eppes section in the Haaretz weekend magazine (in Hebrew). It is reasonable to assume that it was no accident that Yachimovich repeated the above thought specifically during an interview she gave last week to her friend Yedidya Meir, the Eppes man at the ultra-Orthodox Kol Chai radio station.

Politician Yachimovich's objection to the opening of stores on Shabbat is certainly in line with her socialistic agenda. It is quite surprising, however, to hear her saying that the ultra-Orthodox public is a persecuted public, and that the discourse concerning the ultra-Orthodox is an anti-Semitic discourse. Ultimately, at least in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox, Yachimovich is considered one of the main molders of that discourse.

It would not be superfluous to note that Yachimovich was hardly pressured by Meir into voicing this opinion. Just the opposite. Toward the end of the interview, which dealt with other issues entirely, it was she who asked him, "Don't you want to talk about what I have in common with the ultra-Orthodox world?"

Yachimovich also told Meir she had another name, Rahel, "after my grandmother Rochelle, who died in the Holocaust." Meir responded by calling her Ruhaleh, and defined the discourse as "sticky."

The hospital

A reminder to readers: In February 1997 this journalist published a special project dealing with the unbridled ultra-Orthodox incitement against the media. Among other things, I wrote that an heir to former Meretz chairman Shulamit Aloni had been crowned as the woman most hated by the ultra-Orthodox public. This heir's name was Shelly Yachimovich, at that time the powerful presenter of the Hakol Diburim ("It's All Talk") radio program. The ultra-Orthodox media harshly criticized Yachimovich. The verbal assaults in the more moderate newspapers referred to her by her full name, while the more radical ones, which do not use women's names, called her "S. Yachimovich" or "a well-known broadcaster." Thus, for example, one article in Agudat Yisrael's publication, Hamodia, labeled her a "leech - an arrogant leftist who unleashes her vitriolic tongue in every broadcast."

One of the factors behind Yachimovich's dubious recognition by the ultra-Orthodox public was the hospitalization of then-chairman of the Shas Party, Aryeh Deri, due to a mild stroke he suffered following an interview with her. Hamodia wrote that the fastest way to get to the hospital is to "be interviewed on Israel Radio between 10:00 A.M. and noon, to listen to the interviewer's questions and try to defend yourself. That's what happened to Deri."

"It had nothing to do with Deri being religious or ultra-Orthodox," Yachimovich told Meir. "It was the corruption."

Another reason for the ultra-Orthodox hostility toward her was her decision to replay Gil Kopatch's satirical TV comment on the weekly Torah portion. It was broadcast on TV on Friday evenings, and Yachimovich added it to her radio program on Sunday mornings, thus exposing religious people to his ideas. At that time, Deputy Finance Minister Avraham Ravitz (United Torah Judaism) told Haaretz, "She must be anti-religious. The general impression is that when she addresses a religious issue, her bias is extremely obvious."

Yachimovich responded that she asks everyone difficult questions.

Minuscule budgets

Back to Yachimovich's essay on anti-Semitism, the secular and the ultra-Orthodox:

"The army doesn't need them anyway; In a country with 300,000 unemployed... They don't work anyway; they receive minuscule budgets, and it is not they, no, not they, who burden the state budget," writes Yachimovich. "The hatred of the ultra-Orthodox now aids various secular populations to redefine themselves - it is a unifying force in secular society. The ultra-Orthodox are perceived as a faceless black body spawning children and trying to take over the state."

In her interview with Meir, Yachimovich expressed her disappointment with the ultra-Orthodox press' minimal coverage of her entry into politics.

"I don't deserve that," she claimed, noting that in her program on Channel 2, she "never, ever, ever said anything against the ultra-Orthodox. Just the opposite. I always proved that the yeshivas receive less [funding] than the universities."

"Can the ultra-Orthodox calm down?" asked Meir.

"Of course, completely," promised the interviewee.

Yachimovich refused to kowtow to the customary obligation of interviewees on Meir's program to choose a Hasidic song. Meir says that she "didn't choose a Hasidic song, but [says] she does sing [Hasidic songs]."

Meir does not think Yachimovich wanted to ingratiate herself to listeners.

"What reason would she have?" he asks, and explains that she "favors minorities." By the way, Meir relates that even after Yachimovich's warm remarks, he received messages on his cellular phone such as, "Why did you interview that evil woman?" and "She hates the ultra-Orthodox."

Yachimovich's reputation is apparently stronger than her opinions.

Negative discourse

"There is nothing new in my opinions," Yachimovich told Haaretz this week. "I am still completely secular, with secular, humanistic and socialistic values. Still, I object to the fact that far too often certain circles in the left are motivated by an unfounded aversion to the ultra-Orthodox. I do not like group identification based on hatred. I view the ultra-Orthodox as a minority, even if it is a minority whose lifestyle is not to my taste.

"Beyond all that," continues Yachimovich, "I see certain common interests between feminism, social-democracy and the ultra-Orthodox, such as the exploitation of workers on Shabbat. There is common ground there that I find neither disgusting nor repulsive. I do not feel the aversion that a secular leftist similar to me feels. That is foreign to me. Such negative discourse is foreign to me. I don't feel that way either in principle or on an emotional level."

You mentioned a "persecuted minority."

"Sometimes it is. Sometimes there are elements in the secular discourse that are reminiscent of anti-Semitism."

Give me an example of an anti-Semitic remark.

"I am referring to expressions such as `leech.' You know, the image of the Jew from [the notorious anti-Semitic German newspaper] `Der Strumer,' depicting him as both odd and avaricious. Such caricatures are taken directly from `Der Strumer.' As a secular [Jew] it makes me feel uncomfortable. It makes me sick. Even as a daughter of Holocaust survivors."

You cannot ignore the fact that you are identified with the anti-ultra-Orthodox discourse.

"But I do ignore it. I never made any anti-ultra-Orthodox remarks, and I am not anti-ultra-Orthodox. I am not willing to live according to stereotypes. You wrote back then that I acquired by reputation [as the most-hated woman in the ultra-Orthodox public - S.I.] for no good reason, because there is no record of any anti-ultra-Orthodox remarks by me."

Indeed, Yachimovich was never caught making any such remarks, but there were such overtones, and these have changed. Shinui MK Ronnie Brizon defined her statements as "ingratiating flattery." Yachimovich's good friend Tommy Lapid admits that he feels very uncomfortable disagreeing with her. Like Meir, he too explains Yachimovich's opinions as her tendency to identify with the poor ultra-Orthodox minority. Lapid, however, cannot understand how Yachimovich supports "a group that discriminates against women more than any other group in the western world."

Flattery will get you everywhere

Yachimovich told Meir she had "already spoken with ultra-Orthodox politicians and discussed what they would do together in the Knesset," and even declared that they "had a lot in common." Apart from the campaign against malls being open on Shabbat ("It is a terrible reflection on secular culture"), she says that she also shares the war against pornography and is against conscription for women.

"I really don't think that girls should have to - perhaps don't even need to - should certainly be allowed not to serve in the army," said Yachimovich, explaining that one of the reasons for this position was the sexual harassment in the army. She was immediately reprimanded by Meir for using a term forbidden on ultra-Orthodox radio.

I asked Ravitz his view on Rahel Yachimovich's new line. The ultra-Orthodox, he replied, "can be bought with nice words. Just look how well she succeeded - her joining up with Peretz cost her some points with us. Her remarks gained them back."

Ravitz feels that what Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has to do now is make his candidate for education minister, Uriel Reichman, "say some nice things."

"Reichman has to say more that Yachimovich, because he was a Shinui member."