Apparently I am not the only one troubled by the Israel’s new Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem (see my post of May 24). In that post, I complained that the new memorial is more a Zionist monument to the need to plant Jews in Israel to defend themselves, than it is a recreation or conveyance of the personal suffering and monstrosity of the Nazi policies of racial extermination.
In that post, I also reflected on Israeli society, and pointed to the growing tensions arising from the growth of Yiddish-speaking Haredim (ultra-orthodox Jews rooted in Eastern European practices) who oppose the secular and liberal nature of Israeli mainstream society and government. I didn’t mention this before, but I was particularly distressed by the poisonous language used by ultra-orthodox judges, who complained that to permit marriage between those recognized as orthodox Jews and others (including reform and conservative Jews, converts to Judaism, or others seen as ‘not Jewish enough’ by the ultra-orthodox) amounted to a ‘holocaust against Jewry by defiling and diluting pure Jewish blood.’ That is, quite literally, the language they used.
The conflict has now hit a new pitch with an act of vandalism and defilement by Haredim against Yad Vashem. In a particularly repulsive spate of grafitti, the monuments of the museum were painted with images of Jews being taken to concentration camps, with these captions written in Hebrew: “Hitler, thanks for the Holocaust,” “Israel is the secular Auschwitz,” and so on, signed “World Haredi Jewry.”
As these defacements show, the Haredi view the Zionist mainstream of Israel — so clearly put on display in the new Yad Vashem — as just as bad as Hitler for creating an open, secular Jewish society with a broad definition of Israeli and Jewish identities (not quite the same, as their are Arab Israelis too). Some Haredi even are Holocaust-denyers, claiming the Holocaust was simply a made-up excuse to justify a militarized Israeli state.
It is not clear to me how long Israel can exist as two hostile Jewish societies living side by side – a liberal, secular, but still Jewish population who wants Israel to be a modern democratic state, and a conservative, intolerant, ultra-orthodox population who wants Israel to be an 18th century ghetto with rabbinic rule and no political structure or statehood until the Messiah returns to deliver it. Especially when the latter expect the former to provide them with material support and are growing larger as a proportion of the Israeli population with every passing year. The demographic conundrum is astonishing — Israel needs more Jews and desires a faster growing Jewish population to counter the growth in the Arab population both within Israel and in the occupied territories and so encourages larger Jewish families; yet the fastest growing Jewish families in Israel are overwhelmingly the Haredim who have huge families while the secular Jews have small ones. In a quest to build demographic strength to counter the external Arab threat, Israel has thus been nurturning a poison that threatens to destroy it from the inside.
I hope this act of vandalism will force Israeli mainstream society to face up to these problems and deal with the Haredi; Israel does not need Jews who wish to subvert the Zionist project and the history and the liberal values of modern western societies. I would encourage Israel to be blunt — any Haredim unwilling to serve in the military or learn Hebrew should lose their Israeli citizenship and be offered passage to Warsaw if they wish to leave Israel. To be clear: Haredim should be wholly free to either be within Israel and part of it, or to be against Israel and outside it. But they cannot be allowed to be within Israel and part of it while remaining implacably opposed to the ideals upon which Israel was founded.
As a Pakistani, I can say ‘welcome to the club’. I don’t know about Israel but in Pakistan many people claim that Pakistan and Israel are the only two countries in the world whose basis of nationalism is a religion. Although both these countries were formed to save a persecuted religious minority and not a religion (this distinction is very important), religion became important as it was the reason of persecution and the only thing that united the people of the new nation. Religious leaders, many of who were against the creation of these states, saw this opportunity and forced largely secular political elite to give concessions. Political leaders obliged because of their own weaknesses but more so because of the inherent weakness of the state (composed of many ethnicities/languages) and the presence of a bigger external enemy. This resulted in construction of a national narrative which exalted the religion and changed the raison d’être of these states’ existence from saving Jews/Muslims to saving/implementing Judaism/Islam, making religious leaders important players in the polity. This whole story happened in Pakistan earlier than Israel as Pakistan had a more illiterate and conservative population.
In this context, I find your last sentence (reproduced below) particularly interesting.
‘But they cannot be allowed to be within Israel and part of it while remaining implacably opposed to the ideals upon which Israel was founded.’
This sentence shows that for you ‘the ideals upon which Israel was founded’ are clear and non-controversial. These ideals may have non-controversial a decade ago but today a significant part of population (largely composed of ultra-orthodox Jews) contests the mainstream version. And I find it quite possible that an ultra-orthodox Jew may end his article with exactly the same sentence.
Another issue, related to the developments in Israeli society you pointed out and with ominous future repercussions, is the increasing dependence of Israeli military (IDF) on the ultra-orthodox community (Levy, Yagil. 2011. The Israeli Military: Imprisoned by the Religious Community. Middle East Policy 18 (2): 67-83).