The dangers of extremism: a reflection on recent events in Israel
I trust that all of us, despite differences in our religious and political perspectives, have been dismayed by recent events in Beit Shemesh, an Israeli city between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv whose population spans the religious spectrum, from secular to chareidi. In recent years, as the chareidi enclaves in Jerusalem and Bnai Brak have become increasingly overcrowded, a growing number of chareidim have moved into Beit Shemesh, generally residing in all-chareidi enclaves within the city.
In case you missed the recent news reports, the current controversy began when a group of chareidim who call themselves the Sicarii (a name taken from a group of first century zealots whose unabashed fanaticism helped bring about the destruction of the Second Temple) began harassing students and parents as they walked to a religious (but not chareidi) girls' elementary school that borders a chareidi neighborhood. Although the students were dressed modestly by Western standards (long skirts and long sleeves), they apparently fell short of the increasingly stringent modesty standards demanded by some of the more extreme chareidi subgroups in the area. (Foreign media tend to treat chareidim as if they were all identical, but in fact there are wide differences among them.) A news story by an independent Israeli television station featured an eight-year-old girl who had been cursed and spit at by chareidi men and was so traumatized that she was afraid to walk to school, even accompanied by her mother.
Not surprisingly, that story provoked widespread outrage in Israel, resulting in government pledges to take strong action against chareidi harassment and culminating in a Beit Shemesh rally against religious coercion, which attracted secular and religious Israelis from all over the country, even including some chareidim.. When the police tried to protect students and parents entering the school from harassment and removed signs that some chareidim had put up demanding modest dress for women on the public streets around the school, some of the chareidim responded by throwing stones at the police and calling them Nazis, an epithet that not surprisingly provoked further outrage. (The "Nazi" label in this context is self-disproving. If the chareidim really thought that the police were behaving like Nazis, they would never have dared to confront them as they did.)
The unrest in Beit Shemesh comes on the heels of an unrelated series of incidents perpetrated by a group of militant, predominantly religious Israeli settlers in the West Bank who have engaged in a series of reprisals that go under the name "price tag". Those operations have the dual purpose of retaliating for indiscriminate violence against Jewish civilians living in the West Bank by perpetrating indiscriminate violence directed against Arab civilians living nearby and distracting the Israel Defense Forces from dismantling illegal settlement outposts. Needless to say, the IDF, which is responsible for maintaining order in the West Bank, has sought to stop these "price tag" militants, resulting in clashes between the militants and IDF soldiers. The simmering conflict reached a climax of sorts a few weeks ago when a group of the militants invaded and vandalized an IDF base, throwing rocks at the brigade commander, who fortunately was unhurt, though another officer was reportedly injured. That incident was unequivocally condemned by the mainstream settler leadership and provoked widespread outrage across the country, resulting in renewed government promises to crack down on future "price tag" activities. (According to a report in this morning's New York Times, which I saw after this post was almost complete, Israeli prosecutors have arrested and filed charges against five of the "price tag" militants.)
Both factually and ideologically, the activities of the Beit Shemesh chareidim and those of the "price tag" militants are unrelated. The chareidim of Beit Shemesh, who want to seal themselves off into enclaves where they are free to insist on their increasingly fanatical version of female modesty, have no affinity with the militant settlers of the West Bank, whose overarching goal is to hold Israeli foreign policy hostage to their militant outlook by making the prospect of evacuating settlers from any part of the West Bank as part of a future peace agreement all but unthinkable. Though the Western media sometimes obscure this distinction by using the term "right wing" to refer to both groups, in reality the chareidim of Beit Shemesh, who are at best ambivalent toward Zionism, and the militant religious Zionist settlers of the West Bank are wholly different religious and political phenomena.
Yet for all the profound differences between these two groups, there is an underlying thematic similarity that is hard to deny. Each group insists that its own religiously based value system trumps not merely the laws of the State but also the most basic concepts of democratic governance and civic morality. In their minds, the importance of the goals they seek -- promoting enhanced female modesty on one hand and preventing the cession of territory to Arab rule on the other -- is increasingly seen as justifying virtually any means of achieving those goals. And it appears that some of the more extreme members of each group have taken the fight to implement their goals farther than their leaders anticipated or desired.
As far as I know, no respected chareidi leader has condoned spitting at an eight-year-old girl or throwing stones at the police. The leadership of the settler community, for its part, was genuinely horrified by the attack on an IDF base and condemned it in unqualified terms. Yet while I would not suggest that the leadership of either group intended or condoned their followers' most extreme actions, that doesn't let them off the hook, When you continually emphasize to your followers that their value system comes directly from God and thus takes precedence over the man-made laws of the State and encourage them to resist the State's encroachment on their values by unlawful and undemocratic means, can you really be shocked when some young hotheads take that resistance further than you intended?
Both of these phenomena risk serious harm to Israel, but the risks in the two cases are different. In the short run, the actions of the militant settlers are more dangerous since they could increase tensions with the Palestinian Arabs, further damage Israel's international standing and potentially prevent Israel's democratically elected government from pursuing the policies that it believes, rightly or wrongly, to be in the country's best interests. In the long run, however, the settlers' militancy is inherently self-limiting. Militant Zionism is about maintaining Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel and is thus unavoidably intertwined ideologically with the institutions of the State, especially the IDF. That's why the settler leadership was so quick to condemn the attack on the IDF base, and it's why, for the most part, even the more militant factions among the settlers are unlikely to equivocate about attacks on IDF facilities. Whether that consensus would hold in the face of an actual evacuation order may be less certain, but it's worth recalling that, in the 2005 evacuation of the settlements in Gaza, the understandable fears of unrestrained violence against Israeli soldiers were not fulfilled; the bonds of civic cohesion strained but ultimately held. In any event, given the moribund state of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, that scenario is not an immediate concern.
On the surface, the chareidi conflict in Beit Shemesh appears less dangerous, at least in the short run. Sure, the press attention was embarrassing, but given the public's limited attention span, it will soon be forgotten. The chareidi harassment is obviously unpleasant for those who live in Beit Shemesh -- or in immediate proximity to chareidi neighborhoods elsewhere -- but will have little or no direct effect on the country's citizens as a whole. The outrage that led to such widespread support for the rally from those living outside Beit Shemesh did not indicate a generalized fear that such demands for hyper-chareidi modesty standards will spread to the country as a whole, since the chareidi extremists as a rule favor isolation over coercion. Rather, the reaction from secular and religious Israelis alike bespeaks a frustration that has built up over the course of years as a result of a combination of issues, among them the yeshiva draft exemptions, gender-segregated public buses serving chareidi neighborhoods, and the perception that chareidim make excessive claims on the Israeli social welfare system and do not contribute economically to the country as a whole.
These perceptions may be oversimplifications, but they are rooted in reality. They are close enough to the truth to feed the ongoing secularist resentment and contempt for the chareidim. So when events like those in Beit Shemesh provide an opportunity to express the growing resentment of secular Israelis toward the chareidim, it is hardly surprising that many will jump at the opportunity.To be sure, many Israelis of what is often referred to as the "peace camp" are also resentful of what they perceive as the political power of the settlers and are rightly fearful of the potential consequences of the "price tag" militants. There is a fundamental difference, however, between that fear and the resentment felt toward the chareidim -- which is why the chareidi conflict in the long run may be more dangerous to Israel than the conflict with the "price tag" militants. There may be widespread anger at those militant settlers who go over the line in relation to the IDF, but even those in the peace camp cannot completely ignore the fact that the militant settlers serve in the army, contribute to the economy and on the whole share the costs and risks of Israeli life. The conflict among Israelis as to the appropriate contours of their relations with the Arabs has existed since the beginning of the Zionist movement and may well be inevitable in a country facing the kind of existential threats that are an unfortunate but unavoidable part of the Israeli reality. Indeed, over the last few years, mainstream Israeli opinion has moved closer to that of the militants -- not because of anything the militants have done, but rather because events have heightened Israelis' ingrained skepticism of the Arabs' desire for peace.
When it comes to the chareidim, however, the feelings of resentment among secular and even many religious Israelis is different. They are seen as freeloaders who don't participate constructively in the economy, don't serve in the army, make excessive claims on the welfare system and insist on educating their children in a government-funded but independently run school system that perpetuates their economic marginalism and does not teach loyalty to the State or respect for its institutions. And underlying those resentments is the fear that since their birthrate makes the chareidim the fastest growing segment of the Israeli population, their political power and thus their ability to obtain the government largess that underwrites their way of life is likely to grow over time.
The fact that these perceptions are oversimplifications of a more complex reality is almost beside the point. The chareidi demand for increased stringency and isolation and the unrestrained contempt expressed by some secularists toward the chareidim are mutually reinforcing. The greater the expressed anger of many secularists toward the chareidim becomes, the stronger is the chareidi desire to isolate themselves from the non-chareidi world, which is facilitated by creating ever greater and less rational stringencies. And the more isolated the chareidim become, the greater is the anger that secular Israelis express toward them.
Despite the vast ideological differences between the price tag militants and the Beit Shemesh chareidim, the two groups inadvertently reinforce each other. They have vastly different visions of Israel's future, but they share an ambivalence toward the normative democratic principles that are the foundation of the State. Common sense suggests, and modern history confirms, that when the hold of democratic norms is weakened, the ultimate beneficiaries may be groups ideologically distant from those who initially did the weakening.
There is another, distinctly Israeli sense in which militant settlers and chareidi militants have reinforced each other. Over the course of the last four decades, those two groups between them have essentially destroyed religious Zionism as a meaningful political force. Prior to Israel's independence, and for three decades thereafter, religious Zionism, and its primary political manifestation, the National Religious Party, pursued an unapologetic vision of Jewish statehood informed by Jewish religious values, and its religious citizens as full participants in the life of the State. Beginning with the Six Day War in 1967, and accelerating after Likud's victory in the 1977 elections, the retention and settlement of the captured territories came to dominate the political agenda of the religious Zionists to the extent of crowding out all other issues. The purely religious issues that had once been central to the National Religious Party's vision were left to the chareidi parties, whose vision focused on isolation from rather than participation in Israeli society. Even the chief rabbinate, once seen as a religious Zionist institution, came to be dominated by the chareidim, while the National Religious Party shrank until it eventually merged into a far-right party focused almost exclusively on protecting the interests of the settlers.
Within this context, it is hardly shocking that secular Israelis have become more inclined to tar religious Jews as a whole with the brush of religious extremism. It is in a sense fortunate that the eight-year-old girl whose tribulations sparked the furor in Beit Shemesh came from a religious family, making it somewhat harder for secularists to impute chareidi attitudes to the religious population as a whole . Nevertheless, the chilul Hashem (desecration of God's name) resulting from the inexcusable actions of the chareidim of Beit Shemesh have created a burden that all observant Jews must bear. At the same time, they have also created an opportunity to demonstrate to the Israeli public that intolerance and isolationism are not synonymous with a life of Torah. Whether Israel's remaining religious Zionists -- and their counterparts in the Diaspora -- will take advantage of that opportunity remains to be seen.