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A Threat from Within
Yakov M. Rabkin
In a recent review of a work surveying mainly left-wing Jewish opponents to Zionism, I noted that haredi opposition to the Jewish state had been entirely overlooked. "Where is Natorei Karta in all this?" I asked. No sooner was the review published than I received an e-mail from Yakov Rabkin, professor of the history of science at the University of Montreal, telling me that he had written a book that would enlighten me as to just where Natorei Karta was in all this.
It was an offer I could not refuse. I am glad I didn't, even though I have to report that I found the book as depressing, in its own way, as the earlier work.
At least Rabkin has good intentions. According to his own lights, he has tried to give voice to haredi groups who find it difficult to obtain a fair hearing in the media. He is anxious to get over the message that not all Jews are Zionists, and that traditional "Judaic" philosophy (the author's term) is profoundly opposed to Zionism.
This is perhaps not news to most of us here, but Rabkin does quote chapter and verse from various rabbis to demonstrate their unswerving opposition to Zionism, and illustrates the various grounds for their opposition, including a fear of messianism, a rejection of the secular, nationalist philosophies that won over many Jews in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and a desire to keep a low profile and not provoke the gentiles.
He becomes interesting when he traces the Russian origins of the early Zionists and assesses the impact that the ideological currents of the period had on the Jews there. But otherwise he lets his unabashed sympathies for the "Judaic" viewpoint get the better of him, and he leaves almost unexamined areas that cry out for scholarly analysis.
For example, there is little attempt to show how the haredi opposition to Zionism increased as ultra-Orthodoxy itself became more extreme in the wake of the Enlightenment: The haredi claim to represent an unbroken, unchanging and accepted Judaism is taken at face value. Rabkin postulates the opposites of peaceful tradition and violent rebellion without delving beneath the surface.
This total identification of ultra-Orthodoxy with the mainstream of Jewish Orthodox thought blinds Rabkin to the extent to which Natorei Karta and its allies represent an extreme, radical approach to the State of Israel unjustified by any "Judaic" tradition. The language used by these people ought to have lit warning lights. Zionists are routinely abused with epithets that cast doubt on the mental balance of those uttering them: "Amalek" and "Satan" are just two of the choicer examples found here.
Worse is the attempt made by these circles to blame Zionism for the Holocaust. The author should be applauded for not hiding this, but he is content to cite their justifications without pointing out that their assertions are bad theology and worse history. To assume the Holocaust was divine punishment for Jewish wrongdoing is to remove the moral burden for mass murder from Hitler and his gang and to place it on the shoulders of the victims. To pretend to know just what Jews did wrong to bring the death camps into being is arrogant and presumptuous.
At least in this book Reform Jews are not blamed: Their historic opposition to Zionism saves the day.
Wild claims that Hitler was provoked to kill six million Jews because the Zionists called for an economic boycott of Nazi Germany are nonsense: Hitler's murderous anti-Semitism ruled his mind long before he ruled Germany .
And if God was provoked by Zionism, then why did the Yishuv emerge from World War II unscathed? The absurdity of haredi claims is relevant to any assessment of their state of mind and their likely appeal to a wider Jewish audience, but to Rabkin, their every statement testifies merely to their admirable adherence to tradition.
The tragedy of European Jewry is that the time-honored low-profile policy to avert total destruction that had stood it in good stead in the past, failed when faced with the Nazis. Hitler was a phenomenon that it had never known before. Many Zionists, just because they were more attuned to the spirit of the age, realized what would happen and were able to escape in time And what of those haredim who, one way or another, have come to terms with the existence of the State of Israel?
The author devotes a chapter to them under the all-too revealing title "Collaboration and Its Limits." Needless to add, the pejorative word "collaboration" is not carelessly chosen. Yet it is these haredim who are far more closely aligned with the traditional haredi approach to unfriendly governments. They are no Zionists themselves, of course. But they practice quiet diplomacy, generally keep on the right side of the authorities, and they certainly do not side with the enemies of the state in which they live.
"A Talmudic scholar, witnessing in a Jerusalem street a Natorei Karta demonstrator decrying the very existence of the State of Israel, accused him of being a Zionist: 'In Poland or in Russia would he thus curse the authorities? Would he act like this in America?'"
Rabkin cites this conversation without drawing the obvious conclusion that Natorei Karta has departed from mainstream haredi practice, and has become a wild, isolated sect calling down the wrath of heaven on all and sundry, and openly posing with terror organizations with Jewish blood on their hands.
The author's zeal to sever any connection in the mind of his (presumably) overseas audience between an idealized, peaceful, authentic Judaism and a rebellious, radical, secular nationalism is understandable, perhaps. But it cannot come at the expense of the truth. The academic fad of presenting almost any view, no matter how outlandish, under the cloak of "discourse" and therefore exempt from critical analysis is a bad thing and should be discouraged.
A Threat from Within is a useful sourcebook depicting this cramped world, lit by the lurid flames of cruel and misplaced passion. But it is no more than that.