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 multicultural residents to eat together, find their Kashrut certificates threatened for countenancing “idol worship,” despite an Israeli Supreme Court decision banning such rabbinic intrusiveness. If 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. Eli Yishai 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, Ha’aretz reported. “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, unpatriotic , statements. I challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, every Likud-Beteinu 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.
Critics who 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 Jews. Mainstream Israel’s confident acceptance of Christian displays for Christians further proves that the Zionist Revolution worked.
Jews now constitute the majority in one country in the world. Israelis do not have to pretend that Hanukkah is not Hanukkah or that Christmas is not Christmas by saying “Happy Holidays” when we mean “Happy Hanukkah” or “Merry Christmas.” 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, common cause as free citizens.
Zionism had to mature on this front, too. Hard-edged 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.
Today, a 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, rife 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.
Gil Troy 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 University Press