Will Israel’s haredi, secular sectors divorce each other in the future?

Paul Alster’s superbly written novel delves into the powerful religiosity and unity (and disunity) of the modern Israel.

ANTI-ZIONIST Rabbi Moshe Hirsch of the Neturai Karta dons sackcloth to protest the State of Israel on its 50th Golden Jubilee in 1998. (photo credit: REUTERS)
ANTI-ZIONIST Rabbi Moshe Hirsch of the Neturai Karta dons sackcloth to protest the State of Israel on its 50th Golden Jubilee in 1998.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 The book is set in the Israel of 2048 – 100 years after the rebirth of the Jewish state – and tackles one pressing question: to separate or not to separate. British-born Israeli journalist Paul Alster neatly sums it up: “A once-in-a-lifetime referendum has been called to decide whether or not to split the Jewish nation into two; a new haredi-run religious State of Judea, and a slimmed-down, secular State of Israel.”
When reading this first novel from Alster about religious-secular conflict in the Jewish state, two things (a quote and a riot) popped into my head. The first was a quote from the espionage writer John le Carré about one of his visits to Israel.
Le Carré described “the most extraordinary carnival of human variety that I have ever set eyes on, a nation in the process of re-assembling itself from the shards of its past, now Oriental, now Western, now secular, now religious, but always anxiously moralizing about itself, criticizing itself with Maoist ferocity, a nation crackling with debate, rediscovering its past while it fought for its future.”
The British le Carré, arguably the greatest narrator of espionage stories, died in December.
The riot was organized by a segment of ultra-Orthodox Jews (haredim) against Israel’s national lockdown designed to prevent the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus. Anti-police haredi protesters set dumpsters ablaze in the street and tossed fireworks at officers. Resistance by some haredim to anti-COVID-19 measures has led to increased infection in the insulated community.
Back to Alster’s superbly written novel, in which he delves into the powerful religiosity and unity (and disunity) of the modern Israel.
The future prime minister Doron Gal, who desperately wishes to continue as a custodian of Israeli unity, has all of the characteristics of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Prime Minister Doron Gal of the right-wing Likud Party wishes to maintain the status quo, arguing more effort should be made to accommodate the needs of the religious majority community into the current state, and that the Jewish people would be better standing together, not splitting into two nations. He believes that, if divided, the two new countries will both be more vulnerable to attack and potential annihilation from regional enemies. ‘Together we stand, divided we fall’ is Gal’s campaign slogan,” writes Alster.
THE FICTIONAL, at times dystopian, narrative is not limited to raw Israeli power politics. Alster narrates a moving section on a young haredi girl, Hila, who severs ties with her family over a forced marriage.
“Hila was selected after basic training for a job in military intelligence. A bright young woman, she had soon grasped the advanced technology that accompanied her new life and melded it with study skills learned during her formative years of religious application. She was tasked with monitoring movements of potential radical Islamic infiltrators (mainly connected to Iran) on Israel’s northern border,” pens Alter.
The novel is packed full of suspense and personal sub-stories. This reviewer does not wish to reveal too much. As the book meanders its way through a countdown to the referendum, it covers, in spurts, slices of Israeli history.
For example, there is the first prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s decision to allow the tiny post-Holocaust haredi community to abstain from military service. The Holocaust had devastated Europe’s haredi population and Ben-Gurion failed to anticipate the later massive growth of the ultra-Orthodox community. The increase in the haredi population has had profound implications for Israel’s economy and military defense system.
The cast of characters in the book crisscrosses Israel’s security establishment and religious apparatus. Ilana Shwartz, former head of the Mossad intelligence agency, is the leader of the separatist, centrist Hofshi (“Free”) Party. Chief Rabbi Akiva Bermann is the leader of the largest Ashkenazi haredi sect in Jerusalem who will become the leader of “the new State of Judea” if the vote to divorce succeeds.
Rabbi Zvi Tenenbaum is a “renegade voice on the haredi side” who wants the center, namely the State of Israel, to hold.
Alster has, wittingly or unwittingly, tapped into today’s zeitgeist. After the highly polarized 2020 US election, certain voices from pro-Trump “red states” called for secession. The UK’s decision, whether flawed or not, to leave the European Union is another telling example of current atomization.
Kin or Country is, without question, an engrossing, albeit disturbing, read. Alster’s dialogue nimbly advances the plot. The author has a keen ear for speech, powerful emotions, and human interaction. For Israeli readers, the book has ominous implications and will surely evoke contemporary passionate debates about the inner workings of the haredi community and its effects on the larger society.
One hopes that Alster’s book will find a Hebrew-language publisher. Hebrew readers, I strongly suspect, will enjoy this fictional account and grapple with its themes. 
The writer is a fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. On Twitter: @BenWeinthal

KIN OR COUNTRY: A POLITICAL THRILLER
By Paul Alster
328 pages; $14.99