Tunis and Jerusalem

Just like Islam in Tunis the new Judaism in Jerusalem is proposing, in enlightened and modern language, a complete and perfect religious-political revolution.

PARIS - Abdelwahab Meddeb, one of France's most prominent intellectuals, expressed his concern this week about the positions of Rached Ghannouchi, whose Al-Nahda movement won a majority in Tunisia's election last month. Meddeb, a Tunisian-born poet and author whose intellectually inclined family can be traced back to Spanish anusim - Jews who were forced to convert, in his case to Islam - specialized in Koranic studies from a young age. He currently teaches comparative literature at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and is the presenter of a weekly radio show on Islamic culture.

Ghannouchi - Western, moderate and a modernist - confuses the French. It is precisely this blend of religion and modernity that worries Meddeb. It's a utopia, he says. It attracts attention and is misleading, and for this reason is more dangerous than radical Islam. Radical Islam is crude but clear. Its integrality puts off anyone raised in a modern and enlightened atmosphere. Meddeb is unashamedly enamored with the concept of enlightenment and is particularly fond of what he views as one of its most interesting branches, the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment movement of the late 18th century. But this is exactly why he wonders whether Israel is undergoing a process similar to the one that led to Al-Nahda's victory in Tunisia.

The political and social change in Tunisia is complex, and in order to analyze it accurately one needs not only a background in Islam and the Maghreb but also specific knowledge of Tunisian society and the unique characteristics shaping its history and development, such as the relatively high level of education among large sections of the population - including women and people in remote and rural areas. Still, it is enough to listen to a few speeches by and interviews with the heads of Tunisia's new (and temporary ) government to fear that the similarities to Israel that Meddeb speaks of are greater than one might think. The combination of modernity with religion and considered rationality put forth by Al-Nahda's leaders are only part of the picture.

A firmer foundation for the comparison lies in the fact that in both societies a majority of the people fear that religion, with all the accompanying laws, tradition and heritage, is a fundamental component of their personal, social and national identity, and consequently of their political identity as well. For years now the left-right division in Israel has indicated mainly ethnic-cultural boundaries whose core is the approach to religion and tradition.

The first to offer an answer to the great hunger for identity in modern, global Israel was, of course, Shas. Its leaders, who grew out of insular Orthodox Judaism, proved remarkably adept at integrating into secular life in general and the political game in particular. But as with similar movements in many countries in the Muslim world, Shas changed from being a type of agent of an interesting religious-social reform into a separatist political force that donned black and became more extreme in its religiosity and its nationalist positions and made common cause with ultra-Orthodox religious Zionist zealots.

The Israeli alternative to this radicalization, which threatens its secular population, is already here. Its model representative is Aryeh Deri, who is planning a return to politics as head of a centrist social-welfare movement. Deri is likely to get votes from secular Israelis who (correctly ) believe in his ability to break the left-right deadlock, bring about a conciliation with the Palestinians and mend socioeconomic rifts and would eagerly ignore his adherence to halakha, Jewish religious law.

Another alternative, less well-known but vibrant and attractive, is brewing in religious Zionist circles. Its most eloquent representative is Yoav Sorek, editor of Makor Rishon's weekend supplement and among the leaders of Benny Elon's Israeli Initiative, who in two impressive essays he published this year challenged the "dosim" [a pejorative term for religious Jews]. Sorek argues that religious Zionism followed the ultra-Orthodox into mechanical adaptations to Diaspora-style religious law rather than taking the route of modernism on the path to creating the Jewish state.

This utopia, which is based on the eternal Jewish resistance to all law except halakha, views halakha (brought up to date ) as the sole foundation for law in the sovereign Jewish state. Meddeb is thus right: Just like Islam in Tunis the new Judaism in Jerusalem is proposing, in enlightened and modern language, a complete and perfect religious-political revolution.

Read this article in Hebrew: הדמיון בין תוניס לי-ם