Right From Wrong: Unorthodox politics, blessed paradoxes

You can’t make this stuff up. Unless you live in Israel, that is, where paradoxes are as rampant as miracles.

August 8, 2019 22:32
Right From Wrong: Unorthodox politics, blessed paradoxes

Ballots for the 2019 elections. (photo credit: BEN BRESKY)

The one thing about which there seems to be consensus in Israel these days is that voter turnout on September 17, the do-over date for April’s Knesset elections, will be lower than average. If that turns out to be true, the candidates will have themselves to blame for making the current campaign more about politics than policy.

Indeed, even the tiny one-note nellies, whose parties galvanize around a single narrow issue, have been devoting more time to casting aspersions on the moral character of their rivals than on persuading the public to vote for them.

This is further complicated by the many mergers between and among parties, spurred by the unwillingness of small party leaders to succumb to low poll numbers on one hand, and a lack of desire to have thousands of ballots in their ideological camp thrown into the dustbin of the electoral threshold on the other.

The largest of these mergers was established ahead of the last elections by two brand new parties – Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem – joining forces with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which was in danger of slipping into oblivion. Calling itself Blue and White, this collection of peculiar bedfellows got together to offer an alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israelis like new shiny things that promise to change their lives for the better, so Blue and White managed to garner almost as many mandates as Likud in the last election, and has remained pretty much neck-in-neck with the ruling party since then. This is in spite of the fact that it is impossible to tell what the party stands for, other than a desire to oust Netanyahu.

THE ONE figure in the mess who has figured out a formula to regain his waning popularity in the Russian-immigrant community, and to seduce new supporters in other sectors, is Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman.

His is the only party, without any mergers, that managed to double its poll numbers since the last election. Although one is hard put to find an Israeli who can name anyone on the Yisrael Beytenu list other than its chief, Liberman has managed successfully to portray himself as someone with convictions.

This he has done by declaring that he will put on a repeat performance of his maneuver in April, and prevent Likud (or Blue and White, as the case may be) from forming any coalition other than a national unity government. In which he is a prominent member, of course.

Knowing that no member of the public, on any side of the spectrum, wants a third round of elections, “kingmaker” Liberman is effectively blackmailing the two major parties, each of which has said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Cloaking his true aim of positioning himself to become prime minister at some point in what he hopes in the near future, he claims that what he and the public he represents care about most is keeping the haredim out of the government. It’s a brilliant ploy, since Israeli society as a whole is liberal and secular.

THOUGH A majority defines itself as traditional, the Israeli public resents the stranglehold that the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate has over the nature and extent of our religious practices. Marriage, divorce, burial, conversion, Shabbat/holiday observance and kashrut are all determined and controlled by a minority of religious leaders whose power derives not from God, but from each and every subsequent secular Israeli government since the establishment of the state.

Moreover, Israelis believe that the majority of ultra-Orthodox citizens, who enjoy every benefit that the state provides, live in a bubble of Torah study and isolation from society at large. That an increasing number of haredim have been serving in the IDF for some time now is ignored.

What Liberman purposely has failed to mention in his campaign, though, is that there have been several national unity governments in the past, and not one of them eliminated haredi control over the country’s Judaism. He also obfuscates the seeming contradiction in terms that over the years, the Jewish state not only has grown more religious; it simultaneously has become more secular.

Indeed, since his own aliyah from Moldova in 1978, non-kosher restaurants – some with Michelin stars – have sprouted up all over the place, including in the Holy City of Jerusalem, as have bars, theaters and grocery stores that are open on Shabbat.

MEANWHILE, MORE and more couples are opting out of rabbinate-approved weddings. To override the ban on Conservative, Reform and non-denominational nuptials, these Israelis obtain marriage licenses in other countries that are accepted as fully kosher by the Interior Ministry. You know, even when run, as it is today, by Shas leader Arye Deri.

To be sure, this absurd situation, in which Jews can marry easily – and non-Jews can convert with rabbis of their choice – all over the world except in Israel, must be tackled. And it will. But anyone who believes that Liberman is going to snap his fingers and make this happen as soon as he enters the next Knesset is delusional. Even with the help of haredi-basher Lapid.

What Liberman supporters seem not to realize is that even if the haredim are excluded from political power, the national-religious movement large swathes of Israeli society are extremely concerned about the statistics in the United States, the largest Jewish Diaspora, according to which non-Orthodox Jews are basically fading away, if not dying out, with each generation. Surveys indicate that their connection to Israel and Judaism is flimsy, at best, and their ability to pass down knowledge of their history and religion is on a severe decline.

IN CONTRAST, even secular Israeli children are taught the Bible and receive lessons in ancient and contemporary Jewish history. Not to mention the fact that their mother tongue is Hebrew.

At the same time, those kids, unlike their haredi and national-religious counterparts, are surrounded by a wildly progressive culture, which they absorb through movies, TV, books, plays and – it would surprise Israel’s left-wing detractors to learn – the military. On Wednesday, for instance, the IDF announced that it was expanding its embrace of transgender troops, dozens of whom already serve. Until this week, the IDF’s assistance to transgender soldiers took the form of administering hormones. From now on, it will adopt additional measures, such as addressing inductees who have not completely transitioned by their new names and pronouns.

Another example will be displayed on Saturday night, the eve of Tisha Be’av – the somber fast day commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples and bemoaning “sinat hinam” (baseless hatred) – the Tel Aviv municipality, the Bina Secular Yeshiva and Shira Banki’s Way (an organization named after the 15-year-old girl stabbed to death by a haredi man during the 2015 Jerusalem Pride Parade) are sponsoring open dialogues at Habima Square. Speakers at the event will include gay-rights activists and the head of the settler organization, the Yesha Council.

You can’t make this stuff up. Unless you live in Israel, that is, where paradoxes are as rampant as miracles.

Take the extraordinary family reunion at the Western Wall this week, a photo of which was circulated on Twitter by Orthodox primetime TV and radio anchor Sivan Rahav Meir. The picture was sent to Rahav Meir by a grandson of 104-year-old Shoshana Ovitz. Ovitz is a Holocaust survivor, who watched as her mother was taken away at Auschwitz by “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele. After the war, Ovitz met her husband, who had lost his wife in children in the camps, and the couple immigrated to Haifa.

Ovitz’s birthday wish was to have all her descendants – children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren – come together from their various homes in Israel and abroad at the Kotel. They all complied.

The picture of the ultra-Orthodox family shows all the men and boys on one side and all the women and girls on the other. They appear to number more than 200. And all from two lone survivors of Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews.

THIS AWE-INSPIRING ingathering was not merely an apt answer to the Nazis, however. There’s no denying that its size was directly linked to its Orthodoxy. This is not to say that Israeli society should be governed by an oppressive interpretation of Jewish law. But it is something that cannot be overlooked in an intelligent conversation about Israel’s future.

Happily for what is otherwise an impressively healthy and diverse society, the Jewish state is far more complex than any of its power-hungry politicians acknowledge. But then, they’re too busy vilifying one another in the process of vying for Knesset seats to talk about policy.

Let’s get out and vote in spite of them.

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