Featured Post

Separation now

Liberals can’t seduce Haredim with modernity. Haredim can’t seduce liberals with the Talmud. It's time to stop pretending
Illustrative: A Haredi demonstrator reacts, in front of a policeman during a demonstration against the opening of a parking garage next to Jerusalem's Old City. Oct. 24, 2009 (AP Photo/ Tara Todras-Whitehill, Files)
Illustrative: A Haredi demonstrator reacts, in front of a policeman during a demonstration against the opening of a parking garage next to Jerusalem's Old City. Oct. 24, 2009 (AP Photo/ Tara Todras-Whitehill, Files)

Like everyone I know (or care to know) I have been demonstrating in the streets of Tel Aviv. But I have not joined my fellow protesters in their chants for dem-o-cratia! It is a battle cry that misunderstands the real crisis that Israel faces. There is too much democracy here, not too little. 

The government headed by Bibi Netanyahu was elected fair and square. Nobody is accusing the winners of voter fraud, intimidation, or sleight of hand. The contest was a pure exercise in electoral democracy. The people spoke. 

From the point of view of Tel Aviv liberals, these are the wrong people. Tel Aviv democracy comes with a set of values. These include an independent judiciary that protects the rights of minorities and can check government power; a modern educational system based on intellectual curiosity and scientific knowledge; full gender equality and gay rights; universal military conscription (or an alternative form of patriotic service); and active participation in the national economy. 

The Black Hats faction of the government, upon which the Netanyahu government depends, does not simply reject this form of liberalism. They despise it. Their clear and oft-repeated goal is to eventually install a theocracy run according to Talmudic Law as interpreted by venerated rabbis. Such a society will necessarily separate its citizens by gender, ban school subjects that contradict the literal texts of the Torah and Talmud, outlaw godless technology and put a tight lid on personal freedom and public speech.

If you think this is a dystopian nightmare, you are mistaken. It is a matter of arithmetic and democracy. When Israel was founded in 1948, there were less than 40,000 Haredim here. Today, there are more than 1.35 million and the community is growing three times faster than the rest of Israeli society. In the hands of the rabbis, the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply became a political tool. 

David Ben Gurion, a visionary in many ways, did not see this coming. He thought Black Hats were a relic of the ghetto. Their children, he believed, would assimilate as New Jewish Men and Women. He thought it harmless to allow the poor rabbis to establish their own government-subsidized school system. 

A quarter of school age Jews are now Haredi. They are raised and educated in a segregated community with almost no knowledge of or contact with the outside world. They are taught to see secular Israelis as a pernicious species of goyim, and the Zionist State of Israel as a grave crime against divine decree.

The only Israeli holiday the Haredim celebrate is Election Day. Democracy and demography have made them democrats. The rabbis may hate the Israeli Supreme Court but they love the Supreme Court in Washington DC, which enshrined the “one person, one vote,” rule. 

The political rabbis have embraced that simple mantra like the Eleventh Commandment. The ballot is their birthright, a priceless and irrevocable gift handed to them by their Zionist adversaries. 

In Tel Aviv, the demonstrators insist that democracy is more than just winning an election and setting up a government. They believe such talk may convince the rabbis that they benefit from this fancy kind of democracy that includes honest courts, civic participation, and the hypocritical slogan that all Jews are just one big family. Nobody believes that, if anyone ever did. 

It is just possible that the demonstrations in the street, threats by the secular economic and military elite and the blandishments of the Biden administration will cause Bibi to drop his blatant effort to seize the courts and drop the ultra-Orthodox legislation the political rabbis are demanding. The protests could conceivably bring down the government. But the secular liberal center that has ruled the country is no longer the majority. A new election would not change that. A new government could even be worse. 

In the longer term, democracy as it is understood by secular Israelis is neither compatible nor competitive with the ultimate Haredi project. Instead of cursing the power of voter multiplication, it should look to division.

In 1996, I wrote a three-part series in the Jerusalem Report advocating an amicable separation – two states, confederated, sharing the land, cooperating on matters of mutual concern but free to make and enforce their own laws and to live according to their own beliefs and culture.

This seemed like political science fiction at the time. It no longer does. Last week, President Herzog warned that we could well be heading for a civil war. That can’t produce anything but a Pyrrhic victory. We can’t seduce the Haredim with modernity and they can’t seduce us with the Talmud. They are who they are and we are who we are. I’m not judging but it’s time to quit pretending and go our separate ways. 

And a note to those who choose Jerusalem over Tel Aviv. Leave your votes behind. You won’t be needing them.

About the Author
Zev Chafets, the author of 14 works of fiction, biography and reportage, was a frequent Contributor to the New York Times Magazine, Fox News Online, Bloomberg Opinion and other publications. Zev was the founding managing editor and a staff columnist at the Jerusalem Report, and was director of the Israel Government Press Office (1977-82). He lives in Tel Aviv.