The current controversy over modesty in Beit Shemesh heralds the sounding of a rather anti-Semitic refrain, namely that the Ultra-orthodox want to turn Israel into another Iran. Even worse there are those who are said to perceive that growing ultra-orthodox influence is moving Israel to become an Iran style theocracy, with squashed women, and seeking violent overthrow of the western world and all vestiges of democracy. Without discussing the rights and wrongs of the Beit Shemesh protests let us examine why I say that comparing religious Jews to Iranian fundamentalists is not merely misplaced but is anti-Semitic. How can this charge, right or wrong, be anti-Semitic if it is levelled at one sector of Jewish society, by not merely the BBC, but by other sectors of Jewish society? More pertinently, a possible majority of Israeli society stand opposed to the so-called ultra-orthodox on the issue in Beit Shemesh, and claim that the ultra-orthodox have a disproportionate influence in general. How can a majority of Jews be anti-Semitic?
What is anti-Semtic is the rhetoric utilised by the secular disputants and the western press who report the issue. The Iranian regime and other fundamentalist Islamists are not exactly at the height of popularity with the overwhelming majority of Israelis or with the western media. They pursue, unabashedly, the conquest of the entire world by violent means. They champion as martyrs suicide murderers whether they commit their atrocities in Israel, the Muslim world or anywhere else. They provide moral and financial aid to terrorists. They impose violent and cruel punishments and repress not merely opponents but large portions of society in the countries they rule. Iran is not a happy place for many.
Are the leaders of the ultra-orthodox world of the same ilk as the Iranian Ayatollahs? Where is the propagation of violence and repression in the writings and speeches of leading Rabbis? The only violence from orthodox Jews has come from the fringes of the religious Zionist movement and certainly not from the Chareidi or ultra orthodox world. (The overwhelming majority of religious Zionists have not and do not propagate or used violence.) In the thousands of yeshivas in Israel and throughout the world weapons are not being stockpiled, nor does the curriculum entail military training or bomb manufacturing. There is no advocacy of world domination or the promotion of violence as a means to an end.
Ultra-orthodox, orthodox and other Jews do pray for the ultimate imposition of God’s dominion on earth, when the entire world acknowledges God’s sovereignty. They have been doing this for millennia. Does anyone find it insidious that they wish to see their world view prevail? Is this any more insidious than Christian missionaries wanting to convert others? Is this even more underhand, pernicious or insidious than Liberal Democrats wishing to exert a greater influence on the coalition, or on English society? Gee, these guys actually believe something and that their belief would benefit others or is right. This does not make them repressive or wicked or anything. Apart from protesting where they feel others are infringing their lifestyle they do not actively invade secular Israeli neighbourhoods with either protests or violence.
The idea of a growing influence carries very unfortunate resonances, particularly with anti-Semites. The ‘Rabbis’ are not just long coated bearded mullahs sitting in their caves, they are spreading their tentacles in their guise as the ‘learned elders of Zion’ as they plot and control the downfall of mankind. Is this really the image that secularists wish to cast of their fellow Jews? It is not true nor is it accurate nor is it fair. It is a leitmotif of anti-Semites that Jews have too much influence on their societies. This refrain, used by Nazis and others, does no credit to those in the western media who allow its ugly echoes to taint their writings. It does not address the real issues at stake between secular and religious Isr\aelis.
Let us look at this point at an aspect of the religious-secular divide in modern Israel and in the Jewish world in general. This is a deep area. However let us recognise a simple fact. The growth of secular and reformist movements within the Jewish world dates back approximately two hundred years. Various movements have arisen that, while differing from one another in many ways, share a common ground. They all seek to undermine the ‘monopoly’ that the religion and religious leaders have of Judaism and the Jewish people. They provide alternative definitions and means of expressing or defining Jewishness and Judaism. Secular Zionism, in its various forms, is one of these movements.
Prior to the advent of these movements and for many millennia the Rabbis and religious leadership of the Jewish people was in essence ultra orthodox. Leadership came from unelected scholars to whom communities turned for guidance and whose response and writings shaped and guided Jewish life through the centuries. Leaders like Maimonides, Rashi, The Tosafists, Don Isaac Abarbanel and many earlier and later scholars contributed to the cannon of Jewish law and influenced Jewish life. They became known internationally through their writings and response. Their leadership grew from their scholarship and not from their political agendas or agitation. Their acceptance sometimes came after their lifetimes. Nevertheless they held the Jewish people together and ensured not merely Jewish survival in an often hostile and murderous exile but also the flourishing of a rich and vibrant culture. There is no record or history of attempts to overthrow the societies in which they lived nor a litany of summary execution (or any execution) of anyone, let alone those viewed as sinful or heretic throughout the centuries. Even at a time when halacha sanctions a death penalty, when there is a Sanhedrin and a Temple functioning in Jerusalem, the imposition of the death penalty is subject to extremely tight controls and extremely difficult to impose. The massive executions and beatings of a modern Iran could and would never happen under a Jewish theocracy
Were they and are their successors pursuing an anti-democratic or anti-human agenda aimed at subjugating and denying freedom? Many modern secularists and reformists claim admiration for these earlier scholars. This is despite the fact that the modern secularists reject orthodoxy. This is even despite the fact that the writings and beliefs of the earlier scholars reject what the secularists stand for.
In terms of orthodox belief (both ultra and otherwise) and in terms of the halachic rulings of, among others, Maimonides, the beliefs and philosophies of the secularists both today and over the past two hundred years are heretical. Agree or disagree, like or dislike, right or wrong, teachings inimical to and which deny the authenticity of traditional Orthodox Judaism are, (surprise! surprise!) contrary to Orthodox Judaism. Yet despite all this one will have to search very hard over the past few millennia to find calls for the summary execution or death or killing of heretics. There are very strong words from orthodox Rabbis over the past two hundred years condemning the writings and actions of secularists and reformists. These criticisms have predicted and identified devastating consequences and dangers for the Jewish people posed by these movements. They are not merely philosophical disagreements and the opposition of the Rabbis has been determined and vehement. There are today and in the past have been strong criticisms of the secular leadership of Israel and the Zionist movement. It is obvious that whatever the rights and wrongs of the arguments about what is happening in Beit Shemesh or other issues that orthodox or ultra orthodox people have strong feelings. Notwithstanding any criticism or analysis of the rights and wrongs of the methodologies of ultra-orthodox protests, it is clear their feelings are strong. Despite being of the unequivocal view that these secularist or reformist movements are antithetical or dangerous to Judaism the Rabbis have never used or preached violence against them.
None of this, with respect, not even the alleged shouting of abuse, which is wrong, can equate ultra orthodox beliefs, or agendas or motives or actions with those who run Iran. All they have in common is long beards and long coats and a few other external details.
By all means examine the protests of ultra orthodox Israelis critically. Disagree vehemently if you wish. No one will call for your head or come after you with a sword or Uzzi. Argue that ultra orthodox should adopt a different approach to their fellow Jews as regards this dispute or any other. Go speak to an orthodox rabbinical authority and challenge them if necessary. You may or may not end up agreeing with them. They might actually listen and answer. You will not be killed. Even when your newspapers or television programs make false or anti-Semitic claims or publish cartoons depicting Jews or Rabbis in typically anti-Semitic fashion you will not find your embassies besieged by rabid and violent mobs of Ultra orthodox Jews.
The religious Jewish leadership has never sought world domination or undue influence. They do not call for the death of their opponents. They do not train or fund terrorists. Nor do they promote the destruction of democracies or other countries that oppose or misrepresent what Judaism is and what the Jewish people are.
Journalists, whether you have strong feelings on a subject or not, do not descend into false or anti-Semitic rhetoric.
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