Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel: New Introduction by Norton Mezvinsky

Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel: New Introduction by Norton Mezvinsky

by Israel Shahak, Norton Mezvinsky


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745320908
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 07/01/2004
Series: Pluto Middle Eastern Studies S
Edition description: New
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 705,446
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.46(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Israel Shahak was a resident of the Warsaw Ghetto and a survivor of Bergen-Belsen. He arrived in Palestine in 1945 and lived there until his death in 2001. He was an outspoken critic of the state of Israel and a human rights activist. He was also the author of the highly acclaimed Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel (Pluto Press 1999) and Jewish History, Jewish Religion (Pluto Press 1994).

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Jewish Fundamentalism Within Jewish Society

Almost every moderately sophisticated Israeli Jew knows the facts about Israeli Jewish society that are described in this book. These facts, however, are unknown to most interested Jews and non-Jews outside Israel who do not know Hebrew and thus cannot read most of what Israeli Jews write about themselves in Hebrew. These facts are rarely mentioned or are described inaccurately in the enormous media coverage of Israel in the United States and elsewhere. The major purpose of this book is to provide those persons who do not read Hebrew with more understanding of one important aspect of Israeli Jewish society.

This book pinpoints the political importance of Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, a powerful state in and beyond the Middle East that wields great influence in the United States. Jewish fundamentalism is here briefly defined as the belief that Jewish Orthodoxy, which is based upon the Babylonian Talmud, the rest of talmudic literature and halachic literature, is still valid and will eternally remain valid. Jewish fundamentalists believe that the Bible itself is not authoritative unless interpreted correctly by talmudic literature. Jewish fundamentalism exists not only in Israel but in every country that has a sizeable Jewish community. In countries other than Israel, wherein Jews constitute a small minority of the total population, the general importance of Jewish fundamentalism is limited mainly to acquiring funding and garnering political support for fundamentalist adherents in Israel. Its importance in Israel is far greater, because its adherents can and do influence the state in various ways. The variety of Jewish fundamentalism in Israel is striking. Many fundamentalists, for instance, want the temple rebuilt on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem or at least want to keep the site, which is now a holy Muslim praying place, empty of visitors. In the United States most Christians would not identify with such a purpose, but in Israel a significant number of Israeli Jews who are not fundamentalists identify with and support this and similar demands. Some varieties of Jewish fundamentalism are clearly more dangerous than others. Jewish fundamentalism is not only capable of influencing conventional Israeli policies but could also substantially affect Israeli nuclear policies. The same possible consequences of fundamentalism feared by many persons for other countries could occur in Israel.

The significance of fundamentalism in Israel can only be understood within the context of Israeli Jewish society and as part of the contribution of the Jewish religion to societal internal divisions. Our consideration of this broad topic begins by focusing upon the ways sophisticated observers divide Israeli Jewish society politically and religiously. We then proceed to the explanation of why Jewish fundamentalism influences in varying degrees other Israeli Jews, thereby allowing fundamentalist Jews to wield much greater political power in Israel than their percentage of the population might appear to warrant.

The customary two-way division of Israeli Jewish society rests upon the cornerstone recognition that as a group Israeli Jews are highly ideological. This is best evidenced by their high percentage of voting, which usually exceeds 80 per cent. In the May 1996 elections, over 95 per cent of the better educated, richer, secular Jews and the religious Jews in all categories of education and income voted. After discounting the large number of Israeli Jews who live outside Israel (over 400,000), most of whom did not vote, it can be safely assumed that almost every eligible voter in these two crucial segments of the population voted. Most Israeli political observers by now assume that Israeli Jews are divided into two categories: Israel A and Israel B. Israel A, often referred to as the "left," is politically represented by the Labor and Meretz Parties; Israel B, referred to as the "right" or the "right and religious parties," is comprised of all the other Jewish parties. Almost all of Israel A and a great majority of Israel B (the exception being some of the fundamentalist Jews) strongly adhere to Zionist ideology, which in brief, holds that all or at least the majority of Jews should emigrate to Palestine, which as the Land of Israel, belongs to all Jews and should be a Jewish state. A strong and increasing enmity between these two segments of Israeli society nevertheless exists. There are many reasons for this enmity. The reason relevant to this study is that Israel B, including its secular members, is sympathetic to Jewish fundamentalism while Israel A is not. It is apparent from studies of election results over a long period of time that Israel B has consistently obtained a numerical edge over Israel A. This is an indication that the number of Jews influenced by Jewish fundamentalism is consistently increasing.

In his article "Religion, Nationalism and Democracy in Israel," published in the Autumn 1994 issue of the periodical, Z' Manim (no. 50–51), Professor Baruch Kimmerling, a faculty member of Hebrew University's sociology department, presented data pertaining to the religious division of Israeli Jewish society. Citing numerous research studies, Kimmerling showed conclusively that Israeli Jewish society is far more divided on religious issues than is generally assumed outside of Israel, where belief in generalizations, such as "common to all Jews," is challenged less than in Israel. Quoting the data of a survey taken by the prestigious Gutman Institute of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Kimmerling pointed out that whereas 19 per cent of Israeli Jews said they prayed daily, another 19 per cent declared that they would not enter a synagogue under any circumstances. Influenced by the Gutman Institute analysis and similar studies, Kimmerling and other scholars have concluded that Israel A and Israel B contain hard-core believers who hold diametrically opposed views of the Jewish religion. This conclusion is almost certainly correct.

More generally, the attitude towards religion in Israeli Jewish society can be divided into three parts. The religious Jews observe the commandments of the Jewish religion, as defined by Orthodox rabbis, many of whom emphasize observance more than belief. (The number of Reform and/or Conservative Jewish in Israel is small.) The traditional Jews keep some of the more important commandments while violating the more inconvenient ones; they do honor the rabbis and the religion. The secularists may occasionally enter a synagogue but respect neither the rabbis nor the religious institutions. The line between traditional and secular Jews is often vague, but the available studies indicate that 25 to 30 per cent of Israeli Jews are secular, 50 to 55 per cent are traditional and about 20 per cent are religious. Traditional Jews obviously belong to both the Israel A and Israel B categories.

Israeli religious Jews are divided into two distinctly different groups. The members of the religiously more extreme group are called Haredim. (The singular word is Haredi or Hared.) The members of the religiously more moderate group are called religious-national Jews. The religious-national Jews are sometimes called "knitted skullcaps" because of their head covering. Haredim usually wear black skullcaps that are never knitted, or hats. The religious-national Jews otherwise usually dress in the more usual Israeli fashion, while the Haredim almost always wear black clothes.

The Haredim are themselves divided into two parties. The first, Yahadut Ha'Torah (Judaism of the Law) is the party of the Ashkenazi Haredim who are of East European origin. Yahadut Ha'Torah itself is a coalition of two factions. The second is Shas, the party of the Oriental Haredim who are of Middle Eastern origin. (The differences between the two types of Haredim will be more specifically discussed in Chapter 3.) The religious-national Jews are organized in the National Religious Party (NRP). By analyzing the 1996 electoral vote and making some necessary adjustments, we can estimate the population percentages of these two groups of religious Jews. In the 1996 election the Haredi parties together won 14 of the 120 total Knesset seats. Shas won ten seats; Yahadut Ha' Torah won four. The NRP won nine seats. Some Israeli Jews admittedly voted for Shas because of talismans and amulets distributed by Shas that were supposedly valid only after a "correct" vote. Some NRP members and sympathizers, moreover, admittedly voted for secular right-wing parties. Everything considered, the Haredim probably constitute 11 per cent of the Israeli population and 13.4 per cent of the Israeli Jews; the NRP adherents probably constitute 9 per cent of the Israeli population and 11 per cent of the Israeli Jews.

The basic tenets of the two groups of religious Jews need some introductory explanation. The word "hared" is a common Hebrew word meaning "fearful." During early Jewish history, it meant "God-fearing" or exceptionally devout. In the mid-nineteenth century it was adopted, first in Germany and Hungary and later in other parts of the diaspora, as the name of the party of religious Jews that opposed any modern innovation. The Ashkenazi Haredim emerged as a backlash group opposed to the Jewish enlightenment in general and especially to those Jews who refused to accept the total authority of the rabbis and who introduced innovations into the Jewish worship and life style. Seeing that almost all Jews accepted these innovations, the Haredim reacted even more extremely and banned every innovation. The Haredim to date have insisted upon the strictest observance of the Halacha. An illustrative example of opposition to innovation is the previously mentioned and still current black dress of the Haredim; this was the dress fashion of Jews in Eastern Europe when the Haredim formed themselves into a party. Before that time Jews dressed in many different styles and were often indistinguishable in dress from their neighbors. After a brief time, almost all Jews except for the Haredim again dressed differently. The Halacha, moreover, does not enjoin Jews to dress in black and/or to wear thick black coats and heavy fur caps during the hot summer or at any other time. Yet, Haredim in Israel continue to do so in opposition to innovation; they insist that dress be kept as it was in Europe around 1850. All other considerations, including climatic ones, are overridden.

In contrast to the Haredim, the religious-nationalist Jews of the NRP made their compromises with modernity at the beginning of the 1920s when the split between the two large groupings in religious Judaism first appeared in Palestine. This can be immediately observed in their dress, which, with the exception of a small skullcap, is conventional. Even more importantly, this is evident in their selective observance of the Halacha, for example, in their rejection of many commandments regarding women. NRP members do not hesitate to admit women to positions of authority in many of their organizations and in the political party itself. Before both the 1992 and 1996 elections the NRP published and distributed an advertisement, containing photographs of various public figures including some women supporting the party, and boasted more broadly on television of female support. Haredim did not and would not do this. Even when Haredim, who ban television watching for themselves, decided to present some television election programs directed to other Jews, they insisted that all participants be male. During the 1992 campaign the editors of a Haredi weekly consulted the rabbinical censor about whether or not to publish the above-mentioned NRP advertisement. The rabbinical censor ordered the paper to publish the advertisement with all photographs of the NRP women blotted out. The editors did what the censor ordered. Outraged, the NRP sued the newspaper for libel and sought damages in Israeli secular courts, disregarding the rulings of Haredi rabbis prohibiting using secular courts to settle disputes among Jews.

The religious-nationalist Jewish compromises with modernity regarding women are exceedingly complicated in many ways. The Halacha forbids Jewish males to listen to women singing whether in a choir or solo regardless of what is sung. This is stated directly in the halachic ruling that a voice of a woman is adultery. This is interpreted by later halachic rulings stipulating that the word "voice" here means a woman's singing not speaking. This rule, originating in the Talmud, occurs in all codes of law. A Jewish male who willingly listens to a woman's singing commits a sin equivalent either to adultery or fornication. The great majority of NRP faithful members, nevertheless, listen to women singing and thus commit "adultery" routinely. Some of the most strict NRP members, especially among the religious settlers in the West Bank, have not only puzzled over this problem but at times have tried to solve the problem of how to adjust by developing creative approaches. In the early 1990s some of the settlers founded a new radio station, Arutz, or Channel, 7. For their station to become successful and to appeal as broadly as possible to Israeli Jews, the settlers understood that the songs of the fashionable singers of the day, some of whom were women, would have to be broadcast. The rabbinical censor, however, has refused to allow a breach of the Halacha whereby male listeners would hear female singers and thus commit "adultery." After further consultation with the censor, the settlers devised an acceptable solution that is still being employed. Men sing the songs, made popular by women; the male voices are then electronically changed to the female pitch and are broadcast accordingly over Arutz 7. A part of the traditional public is satisfied by this expedient, and the learned NRP rabbis insist that no adultery is committed when men listen to the songs being sung. The Haredim obviously have rejected and condemned this accommodation and to date have refused to listen to Arutz 7. Even more importantly, the Haredim, after increasing somewhat their political power in the 1988 elections, were able to impose their position in this regard upon the whole state by forcing a change in the opening of the new Knesset session. The opening ceremony previously began with the singing of "Hatikva," the Israeli national anthem, by a mixed male–female choir. After the 1988 election, in deference to Haredi sensitivities, a male singer replaced the mixed choir. After the 1992 election, won by Labor, an all-male choir of the Military Rabbinate sang "Hatikva."

How can the Haredim, who altogether constitute only a small percentage of Israel's Jewish population, at times, either alone or even with the help of the NRP, impose their will upon the rest of society? The facile explanation is that both the Labor and Likud parties kowtow to the Haredim for political support. This explanation is insufficient. The kowtowing continued between 1984 and 1990 during the time that Labor and Likud had formed a coalition. Currying favor from the Haredim for alignment purposes was then politically unnecessary. The offered explanation, furthermore, does not adequately take into account the special affinity of all the religious parties, perceived since 1980 as fundamentalist, to Likud and other secular right-wing parties. This affinity, especially between Likud and the Haredi religious parties, based upon a shared world outlook, is at the crux of Israeli politics. (This affinity is analogous to that existing between Christian and Muslim fundamentalists and their secular right parties.) The relatively simple case of the NRP illustrates this well. The NRP recognizes, although does not always follow, the same halachic authorities as do the Haredi parties. The NRP also adheres to the same ideals relating to the Jewish past and, more importantly, to the future when Israel's triumph over the non-Jews will allegedly be secure. The differences between the NRP and the Haredim stem from the NRP's belief that redemption has begun and will soon be completed by the imminent coming of the Messiah. The Haredim do not share this belief. The NRP believes that special circumstances at the beginning of redemption justify temporary departures from the ideal that could help advance the process of redemption. NRP support in some situations for military service for talmudic scholars is a relevant example here. These deviant NRP ideas have been undermined since the 1970s by the expanding Haredi influence upon increasing numbers of NRP followers who have resisted departures from strict talmudic norms and have favored Haredi positions. This process has been counter-balanced to some extent by the growth in prestige of the NRP settlers who are esteemed as pioneers of messianism even though the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin by a messianist may have momentarily increased Haredi prestige.


Excerpted from "Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel"
by .
Copyright © 2004 Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


New Introduction

1. Jewish Fundamentalism Within Jewish Society

2. The Rise of the Haredim in Israel

3. The Two Main Haredi Groups

4. The National Religious Party and the Religious Settlers

5. The Nature of Gush Emunim Settlements

6. The Real Significance of Baruch Goldstein

7. The Religious Background of Rabin’s Assassination





What People are Saying About This

Noam Chomsky

Shahak is an outstanding scholar, with remarkable insight and depth of knowledge. His work is informed and penetrating, a contribution of great value.

Gore Vidal

The voice of reason is alive and well, and in Israel, of all places. Shahak is the latest -- if not the last -- of the great prophets.

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