While the American press, moving beyond the Newtown elementary school massacre,
overflows with feel-good stories of Good Samaritans helping the needy, the
Israeli media is covering a different seasonal phenomenon – the annual emergence
of haredim and anti-Zionist rabbis as Grinches.
When the Jerusalem
municipality distributes free Christmas trees to Christian residents and
displays a Christmas tree at Jaffa Gate to honor the many Christians visiting
the Old City, haredi rabbis and city councilors grumble: “Bah Humbug” (Ok,
that’s Dickens, not Seuss). Restauranteurs offering kosher New Year’s Eve
celebrations inviting all of Haifa’s residents to eat together find their
kashrut certificates threatened for countenancing “idol worship,” despite an
Israeli Supreme Court decision banning such rabbinic intrusiveness.
American Scrooges sing “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” the Israeli version
would sing “Grandma Got Hassled by Some Rabbis” – especially if she were
Christian and wore a Christmas Poinsettia or if she were Jewish and wore a
tallit at the Kotel.
Shouting “Oy to the world” like this casts haredim
as Seussian sourpusses stealing Christmas from the happy Whos of Whoville. These
extremists’ nasty, narrow-minded, narcissistic interpretations of Judaism rob
Judaism of its joy and deprive millions of Israelis of positive Jewish role
modeling – partially due to many Israelis’ own lazy failure to understand that
you do not need a big hat, Santa Claus beard and black suit to be a great rabbi
or a good Jew.
I am not caricaturing haredim; these Jewish Talibans, who
are the loudest but not the most popular or representative strain of
ultra-Orthodox, are caricaturing Judaism. They ignore the Torah’s 36 invocations
to respect the stranger, because we were strangers in Egypt. Note this is Torah
law, not rabbinic extrapolation.
These Jewish deviants do not define
Judaism, Israel, or Zionism. Unfortunately, they include Israel’s current
interior minister, who also overlooks the many biblical examples of Jews
defending themselves with real weapons, not just Torah study.
is warning his supporters, crassly, that, “God forbid,” they might have to start
fulfilling their patriotic duties. “Doesn’t each and every one of us have a son
who is about to be drafted?” he recently harangued, Haaretz
“After his son gets a call-up notice, let no one ask, God
forbid, ‘Where was I? Why wasn’t I more active? I could have persuaded more
people.’ This can happen.”
No self-respecting Jew, no self-respecting
Zionist, should vote for any party that endorses such selfish, cowardly,
anti-biblical and unpatriotic statements.
I challenge Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu, every Likud-Beytenu leader, in fact every Zionist candidate
to repudiate these remarks. Moreover, every Zionist voter should only vote for
candidates who will deliver a Zionist Chief Rabbinate and a Zionist cabinet –
with ministers whose children serve proudly in the IDF.
wrongly caricature Zionism as xenophobic and racist should note that Israel’s
anti- Zionist extremists are the ones threatened by a little Christmas tree here
or a fun Sylvester-New Year’s party there. Their insecurity despite their
seeming piety demonstrates that they remain broken, oppressed, unredeemed Galut
Mainstream Israel’s confident acceptance of Christian
displays for Christians further proves that the Zionist Revolution
Jews now constitute the majority in one country in the world.
Israelis do not have to pretend that Hanukka is not Hanukka or that Christmas is
not Christmas by saying “Happy Holidays” when we mean “Happy Hanukka” or “Merry
Israel acknowledges and respects different religions,
different nations, different ethnic groups, with no need to homogenize humans
into one bland blend. The resulting self-confidence, this ability to shape a
public Jewish culture, fosters magnanimity, not just “tolerance” – a word I
despise when discussing intergroup relations. In 1930s America they talked about
“tolerating Jews.” But one “tolerates” odors. After the Holocaust, the
conversation shifted to acceptance, equality and common cause as free
Zionism had to mature on this front, too. Hardedged ideologues
decades ago feared modern culture threatened their nascent Hebrew culture.
Whether or not Israel formally banned the Beatles in 1965, such boycotts
reflected early Zionist insecurity. But Zionism itself emerged from the creative
clash between Judaism and modernity. It always sought some synthesis between
traditional Jewish culture and the Enlightened Western world.
better Zionist balance has been achieved, as a modern start-up nation thrives in
Theodor Herzl’s dreamed-of Altneuland, Old-New land. Jerusalem’s municipality
can give out Christmas trees to its Christian residents, the Israeli Supreme
Court can force the kashrut authorities to focus on food, not atmospherics, with
Israel confident of its Jewish character.
The Jewish Taliban extremists
may grab the headlines. But despite hysterical warnings about Israel turning
into Haredistan, the confident, open-minded Zionists are the ones shaping
history – and determining Israel’s future.
Of course, as Jews, as
Zionists, as democrats, as moderns, we follow no set formula. Just as even a
master performer would have troubling juggling a Torah scroll, a kova tembel, a
ballot box, and a computer, so, too, modern Israeli Jews, from “secular” to
“religious,” share with their Jewish brothers and sisters all over the world a
host of dilemmas.
Most of us want some ties to tradition – without being
tethered too tight in a world brimming with freedom, rich with opportunity. Most
of us want to embrace modernity – without being sucked into a black hole of
selfishness, consumerism and careerism. So we juggle our commitments, our
values, our identities, cherishing the old, appreciating the new, and learning
to mistrust fanatics who try shutting out one positive influence or the other.
If only the media and political systems were as effective at ignoring them as we
are when we actually live our lives, we would gain more social and political
stability even amid our perpetual juggling acts.
The writer is professor
of history at McGill University and an Engaging Israel Research Fellow at the
Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. His new book, Moynihan’s Moment:
America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, was just published by Oxford