‘To leave! To leave the ghetto!” cries the mortally wounded Jacob Samuel, the tragic hero of The New Ghetto and the alter-ego of its playwright, Theodor Herzl.
A Viennese lawyer who tries and fails to join gentile society before losing his life in a duel with a noble antisemite, Samuel’s unplanned will was the living Herzl’s demand. To him, the ghetto epitomized everything he loathed about pre-Zionist Jewish existence: the departure from power, nature and pride.
Other Zionist thinkers concurred.
“The narrow Jewish street,” wrote Max Nordau, deprived its dwellers of “all the elements of Aristotelian physics” – light, air, water and earth. David Ben-Gurion refused to speak the ghetto’s language, Yiddish. Of his rival Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a multi-lingual bearer of European culture, Ben-Gurion said admiringly, and rightly: “There was nothing in him of the Exilic Jew.”
The Zionist project thus waged war on the ghetto and its mindset, a war it largely won.
Zionism delivered what the Jews had lost: a state, a government, an army and a treasury, factories, farms, universities, theaters, and stadiums, and beyond them a sense of confidence, pride and belonging. Unlike Jewish belonging, which was about the community, Zionist belonging meant being part of society, part of the state, and part of the world.
In recent decades, however, a counterrevolution has taken wing, a grand effort to restore the ghetto – physically, spiritually and mentally. Now, as the Jewish state faces Benjamin Netanyahu’s new political bandwagon, the grim conclusion is that the Zionists have been pushed to the backseat, and the ghetto people have grabbed the wheel.
THE GHETTO people’s first concern is the physical ghetto, the walls that isolate the community, and make it ignore the rest of society and abuse the state.
The medieval ghetto was a minuscule, gated community, but in Israel, the ghetto is a vast neighborhood and sometimes an entire city whose leaders discourage military service for men, national service for women, general education for children, and everyone’s marriage outside the community.
The coalition deal serves the physical ghetto well, by handing the Housing Ministry to Yitzhak Goldknopf, a hassidic hack who spent not one day in university and in fact doesn’t even have your 19-year-old kid’s high school education.
Just how equipped this man is to tackle the housing crunch that affects millions of Israelis became apparent three weeks ago, when Goldknopf stunned the Local Government Conference with the statement “I don’t know of a housing crisis.”
And why should he know? The man is a product of the ghetto, and is in politics for the sake of the ghetto, not for the sake of the state. That’s why when he enters the Housing Ministry next week he will use its budget first and foremost to expand and multiply his community’s already countless ghettos.
Then again, the ghetto has been registering this kind of gain here for decades, along with the rest of the concessions that Likud leaders have granted it repeatedly since 1977. Yes, Netanyahu’s latest concessions are unprecedented in both quality and quantity.
The quality includes a vow to make Torah studying a constitutional value, and thus further industrialize draft dodging. The quantity includes doubling yeshivas’ budgets as well as the budgets of elementary schools and high schools, regardless of their failure to teach a core curriculum of English, history and math.
Still, the big change this time lies not in the physical ghetto’s gains, but in the mental ghetto’s achievements, and even more so in its demands.
THE MENTAL ghetto’s most brazen demand came not from the new coalition’s ultra-Orthodox quarters, but from its ultra-nationalist wing, when Religious Zionist Party’s Orit Struck and Simcha Rothman presented a bill to amend the Anti-Discrimination Law, so that social discrimination would become legal.
If it’s up to them, a doctor will be allowed to refuse to treat a patient if that association offends his faith, and a business owner will be allowed to turn away customers whose business offends his beliefs. This means, for instance, letting Jewish doctors refuse to treat Muslims, and letting straights refuse to serve gays.
Fortunately, the initiative was derailed when the chief rabbis said Jewish law demands that a doctor treat everyone impartially. Unfortunately, the racist ignoramuses behind that proposal are set to be pillars of the coalition – Struck as national assignments minister and Rothman as the Knesset Law Committee chairman.
So will the ghetto mentality that guides them – the pre-Zionist Jewish mindset where the other was a threat, the outer world was an enemy, and tribe, clan and sect were supreme values.
Worshiping the sect is what made the ghetto Jew shun, ban and hate fellow Jews. This attitude is also joining the new government, in which the anti-hassidic Moshe Gafni derailed the hassidic Goldknopf’s inclusion in the security cabinet.
Goldknopf will not be in the cabinet, but the ghetto Jew’s scorn for governance will be there, in full force, as the ministries of defense and education get two ministers each and in addition will be splintered like molecules into atoms, so that sectarian princes will get political princedoms, while the foreign and finance ministries work under disempowered, rotational ministers.
It all adds up to the shtetl mindset that Herzl set out to eradicate, by portraying a future in which the Jews’ enemy was not the world that sprawled beyond the ghetto, but the ghetto itself.
Yes, the crowd of counter-Zionist reactionaries that will now stare at Benjamin Netanyahu every Sunday morning is not where this worldly ambassador, statesman and MIT graduate belongs. It is, however, where he has arrived, and it is also where he is set to drag the Jewish state, as Herzl, Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky toss in their graves.
The writer, a Hartman Institute fellow, is the author of the bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s political leadership.