Wednesday, January 04, 2012


Solidarity, Reciprocity, and Discontent

The following is a partial translation of the first part of an article by the Israeli journalist Ben Dror Yemini. He is addressing the recent scandals involving Charedim behaving badly, that shook Israeli society out of its usually docile acceptance of its beleaguered life.

"Israel is in the throes of a much needed culture war, but not because someone spat on an eight year old girl or another yelled at a young girl who sat in the front of the bus. We need a culture war in order to rescue the state of Israel from becoming a state of minorities, while the majority is trampled upon. The problem does not lie in a lawless fringe group of zealots, who do not recognize the state of Israel. The problem is the thousands and hundreds of thousands who are excused from proper schooling, military service, or the workforce. The segregated sidewalks or buses are not even the cherry on top of the rotten icing. That’s not the problem. The problem is rooted in those who join the chorus of condemnations while shoring up the status quo. These include Shas and the PM, and others.

Many members in the Charedi camp are fed up with the deformed social structure they inhabit. While they want to lead a religious life, they also are not afraid of English or History studies. They want to do military service, be part of the workforce and are willing contemplate substantial reform to the conversion concept. Let’s not be mislaid here. Rabbi Amsalem, of Shas, is not some wild weed in Judaism. The entire Shas party is a weed. It was Maimonides who wrote that “he who decides that the study of Tora excludes working for one’s living, and is willing to live on charity alone, is tantamount to heretic and a scoundrel to the Tora”. In the matter of segregation between men and women, they know how to be disciples to Maimonides. In that respect they remained in the Middle Ages.

Contrary to high and mighty declarations, and illusions, when it comes to sharing space with the Charedi population, the option of shared communities is implausible. Secular, observant or traditional Israeli Jews will not dare reside at the heart of a Charedi community. Charedim, by contrast, are allowed to settle anywhere. This works well as long as they are the negligible minority. It becomes a problem when they multiply. Then they coercively wish to impose their ways upon others. The conclusion is that we must separate. Observant Jews, secular Jews, traditional Jews, Right-wing or left-wing Jews, all can live together. But this is impossible with the Charedim. It is not possible to co-mingle with them. This is the situation not only in Nigeria where various groups slaughter each other, or in Somalia where everyone blows up everyone else. But also in Britain and Sweden. It doesn’t work in Yavne-El, a township that gained much notoriety during the nineties due to the invasion by the Bratslav Chassidim. Problems only got worse over the years. However, the allegation -- promoted by predictable articles in the media – that this separation is de-facto racism is total nonsense. All those authors who make these allegations themselves live in neighbourhoods where others share in the same culture; they do not live among at the heart of a Charedi or an Arab neighbourhood. They wouldn’t want to live there. So let them not waste our time with ”racism” claims.

Those who are interested in partnership are welcome. One condition applies: that it be a two-way street, not a unidirectional exchange. Partnership between a man and his horse is regulated as between humans and beasts. And even that is being disputed nowadays. It ought to be completely clear, though, that this is not a model for partnerships among social groups. Separation among the different communities does not exclude partnership and solidarity, but only when it is reciprocal as between equals. Whoever is funded by public, tax-payers’ money must be required to assume their share of the general burden. There are rights, but then, there are responsibilities as well, such as national or military service, working for a living, or paying taxes. Solidarity – absolutely. Parasiticality – absolutely not.

Inbuilt into the structure of democratic societies is tolerance towards those who are different and “others”. This is the correct form. Still, a certain adjustment is called for. For example, we will happily accept and welcome emissaries from Kfar Chabad if they wish to speak at a Raanana center, provided a secular group from Raanana is allowed to make its case at a center in Kfar Chabad. No more uni-directional rights. No more taking advantage of liberal rights in order to put an end to liberal society. This applies to any type of fundamentalist group. What they don’t want done to them, they should not be doing to others.

Mixed societies can thrive peacefully only if those who join them share in a certain ethos. Secular people who try to live in the midst of a Charedi suburb are not about freedom of residential choice but a provocation. It’s the same as with Jews who insist on residing in the midst of Hashiloach Village or Arabs who want to implement the “Right of Return” in Israel proper. The national idea – and most countries in the world are nation-states – is based on communities sharing in a common ethos. Such an ethos can be culturally authentic or something that has evolved and consolidated over time. Communities are also self defined. There is no racism in the idea of people wishing to live in a culturally, religiously or nationally, familiar public space.

It is the weaker segments in society who always pay the price for the attempted co-mingling of communities. The strong and enlightened elites, as we know, are quite successful in preserving the boundaries of their own homogeneous living. If the elites have a right to choose their quality of life, a life that includes separation, they should not moralize different principles to others.

And like the Old Cato, I will recapitulate with the inevitable conclusion: Israel is a minoritocracy, not a democracy. Only a reform of the governance system will correct the warp that allows a few, relatively minor, pressure groups to trample upon the rights of the majority through political extortion. Until such a reform takes place, the current struggle will yield three indictments against three spitters or rioters, but for Israeli society, and especially its women, no good news will be forthcoming."

This article from the Jerusalem Post tries to unravel the very complex tangle of beliefs, mindsets, ways of life and behaviours involved in the kerfuffles:

"JUST AS important, however, the secular interpretation of events is sometimes no more accurate. Many secular Jews possess the absurd belief that all haredim, or even all religious Jews, are of the same mindset as the extremists. Former Meretz Party chairman Yossi Sarid declared that Judaism itself halachically mandates such behavior (!), and that all religious parties should be disqualified from the Knesset.

The widespread talk against religious Jews is no less offensive than the curses heaped by haredi extremists upon others. This also has the effect of encouraging the wider haredi world to adopt a siege mentality and prevents them from acknowledging any wrongdoing in their own camp – which in turn lends credence to the secular charge that haredim are indeed all of the same mindset. Thus, the ultra-secular and the ultra-Orthodox are locked into a vicious cycle which brings out the worst in each.

Yet another interpretation of events was apparently held by the groups that joined the rally in Beit Shemesh, who portrayed the issue as one relating to women. But aside from the question of whether some of them were seeking to force a rift between Netanyahu and his coalition, even those genuinely motivated by a desire to improve the status of women were missing the point."

These problems are only a part of what makes Israel appear to be , to quote the recently departed and much missed Christopher Hitchens, an abnormal country. Naturally, I disagree with him about Israel not being a normal country. Israel is the best functioning democracy imaginable under circumstances of extreme existential threats. These two articles are just a very random sampling of how Israelis are trying to fashion their democracy in such ways as can be both fully democratic and Jewish. Israel is not normal in the same way that the US or France or UK are normal countries. And it's not abnormal in the same way that Saudi Arabia, or Syria, or Iran are abnormal. But on the continuum between the "normalcy" of a Western, law and order democracy, and the abnormality of third world theocracies and dictatorships in which law is to be feared rather than respected, Israel is just a notch away from the former end.

What captivated my attention in Ben Dror Yemini's article is his somewhat fumbling but worthy attempt to deal with an issue I have been thinking about more and more recently. That is the knotted issue of solidarity in our current multicultural ambiance. He says explicitly what the problem with solidarity is, namely, that it seems to flow, expected to flow, in one direction, from the mainstream majority to minorities. To this he says, no. No solidarity without reciprocity. When a minority expects to be accommodated on principles that are not only unshared by the vast majority but are reviled by it, then there is a place to ask by what right, and to resist.

Easier done in Canada, perhaps, than in Israel.

Perhaps, quite inadvertently, I just provided a possible angle by which to evaluate these matters: "When a minority expects to be accommodated on principles that are not only unshared by the vast majority but are reviled by it". There is an essential difference between an unshared value and a reviled value. I'll have to cogitate some more.


At 5:54 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Israeli car ad boasts run over of kids'

Just Israelis can think of such an advertisement, their hate turned them into monsters. Eventually the monster will provoke its own death.

Free Free Palestine!

At 5:54 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

They probably have posters and t-shirts by now;
a video game called ZOOK.

At 5:55 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why don't they just burn...

At 6:14 AM EST, Blogger The Contentious Centrist said...

Yes, I remember that incident. PressTV has a very creative way of describing things.

At 5:54 PM EST, Anonymous Nano said...

Such a great article it was which
The segregated sidewalks or buses are not even the cherry on top of the rotten icing. In which they want to do military service, be part of the workforce and are willing contemplate substantial reform to the conversion concept. Let’s not be mislaid here. Thanks for sharing this article.


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